Essays of a Camden native

A true family farm

By Paul Putnam | Mar 16, 2013

When my great-grandfather, George L. Putnam, mustered out of the 26th Maine Regiment in August 1863, he returned to South Thomaston. He was 22, single and wanted to be a farmer as his father had been before him up in Monroe.

In 1866 he bought the Barzillai Pierce farm out on the marsh road for $500, a farm of about 100 acres. That road would later be called Buttermilk Lane because nearly all who farmed there were in the dairy business. In those days the term “road” was understood relative to footpaths and game trails. A road was more or less passable with oxen or a horse and wagon, at least in certain seasons.

George prospered as a farmer and by January 1870 was ready to bring home his new bride Mary D. Rowell — granddaughter of Revolutionary War soldier William Rowell, a veteran of the Battle of Bunker Hill.

George and Mary raised three children — Cliff, Judson and Jenny — and they were well educated for their day. Jenny and Cliff never married, and stayed on the farm all their lives. Fortunately for me, Jud married Mabel Stinson Barbour from Deer Isle and lived in the Keag (SouthThomaston) to raise his family of two — Lillian and Sterling. Lilly was my mother, and when she died shortly after my younger brother was born, Sterling adopted me.

Uncle Cliff was interested in law, studied books on parliamentary procedure and was active in local politics. He was moderator for South Thomaston town meetings for many years. In 1893, at the age of 19, Cliff traveled to Chicago for the Columbian Exhibition and returned from there with many new ideas about modern farming. Consequently, for many years the Putnam Farm was one of the most modern farms in the state, with electricity, a telephone and modern farm equipment. Uncle Cliff’s blacksmith shop lacked nothing and there was seldom a farm need that he couldn’t build or repair.

Aunt Jenny took piano lessons, and studied in Boston to become a piano teacher. She gave piano lessons, sometimes in town and sometimes in the parlor on the farm. I remember the piano, the metronome and the lesson books in my time, and Aunt Jenny would still knock out a tune at the drop of a hat. She also kept abreast of politics, and was quite ready to pitch in at the local town meeting on issues that concerned her. She loved to play cards, and taught all us kids to play bridge at an early age. When no one was around, it was solitaire. She liked to recite poetry and seemed to be able to memorize long pieces easily. Then she would show off at family gatherings, hamming it up a bit.

Jud became a carpenter, moved to town, and played the violin for country-dances along with his sister Jenny. One time when playing down on Deer Isle, George’s eye caught Mabel Barbour’s, who also played piano and they soon became a pair, while sister Jenny stayed home.

It’s hard to get inside the mind of someone out of the past, but it would seem that George’s plan was to provide most of the family’s needs from the farm, especially food and shelter. He had an excellent layout of buildings, which provided for all his animals as well as his family. All were snug and warm whatever the winter had to offer. Nearly all of his equipment was stored indoors when not in use.

There was ample firewood for winter and cooking, and there was a pond in the back field for ice. In the early years all the dairy products were cooled with ice. In later years electricity took over part of that load.

Extensive hay fields provided most of the hay needed for about 15 milk cows plus younger animals being raised for beef and herd replacement, and for the two horses. In earlier years George used oxen. The pigpen was at the rear of the equipment shed, away from the house. The orchard had plums, cherries and pears as well as a good variety of apples.

It was common for farmhouses to have a secondary apartment to accommodate family members who had need. The Putnam farm had a small three-room apartment incorporated into the main building. George's parents came there from Monroe to spend their final years. His sister Nancy also lived there after her husband died. My grandparents — Jud and Mabel — lived there when first married and their children were born there. My parents — Sam and Lilly Jackson — lived there when they were first married; my oldest sister Estelle was born there and my brother Malcolm. Estelle also lived there when she was first married, and Malcolm’s mother-in-law lived there after her husband died. Finally, my grandmother spent her final years there after Jud died.

My brother, Malcolm, has the farm now, and while nobody farms any longer, four of his five boys and their families live on the property. The barn and other outbuildings burned in 1968 in a fire, which very nearly took the attached house as well, and the road is no longer a rough track through the woods, passable only by horse and carriage, but a nicely paved road. One needs to be very cautious when pulling out of Mac’s driveway because of the frequent auto traffic speeding through, almost literally from nowhere to nowhere. There is not a single dairy farm left on Buttermilk Lane.

Paul Putnam lives in Rockport. His four volumes of essays, "Thoughts and Reminiscences of a Camden Native," are available at the Reading Corner in Rockland and the Owl and Turtle Bookshop in Camden. He can be reached at pputnam@midcoast.com.

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