Posts Tagged ‘Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’

In 1729, eleven years after the incorporation of Falmouth (much of which, including the Neck, is now Portland), the selectmen were asked to look for a schoolmaster so the state wouldn’t levy a fine on the town.  The law required towns with at least 50 families to employ a qualified schoolmaster to teach their children to read, write, and cipher.  For whatever reason, their failure to do so had either not been noticed or had been deliberately overlooked for seven years because the number of families in town reached 50 in 1726, and the Board of Selectmen searched for a proper schoolmaster for four more years after they were asked to act on the matter.

Finally, in 1733, Robert Bailey was hired to serve as Portland’s first schoolmaster.  He was instructed to “keep six months upon the Neck, three months at Purpooduck (now South Portland), and three on the north side of Back Cove.” [1] The following year Schoolmaster Bailey spent two months each at the Neck, Purpooduck, Stroudwater (now Westbrook), Spurwink (now Cape Elizabeth), New Casco (now Falmouth), and Presumpscot (now Portland’s East Deering section).  In 1736, Bailey’s salary was increased and a grammar school was established where boys could learn Latin in preparation for college as the law required for towns with 100 or more families. Secondary schools, which emphasized Latin, rhetoric, and advanced arithmetic for boys entering college, were rare outside of the major population centers such as Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Harvard College, Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1726.

There is no further mention of Mr. Bailey after 1736 and it is assumed that he was replaced by a Mr. Sewall who kept school on the Neck for six months and was in turn replaced by Mr. Nicholas Hodge, a student at Harvard.  When Mr. Hodge graduated from Harvard in 1739, he studied for the ministry under the tutelage of Rev. Thomas Smith, and earned a small income by continuing to serve as Portland’s schoolmaster from 1739 to 1741.

Nicholas Hodge was succeeded by Samuel Stone who kept a school in his home “on the bank of Fore river near the foot of Center street [sic]”.[2]  Eventually, Mr. Stone moved to Manchester, Massachusetts, and in 1745, Stephen Longfellow (Harvard 1742), the great-grandfather of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, came to Portland from York in response to an invitation from Rev. Thomas Smith.  According to Portland historian William Willis, the following year Mr. Longfellow had 50 students.

By 1753, Stephen Longfellow and John Wiswell (Harvard 1749) were both schoolmasters on the Neck, but three years later Mr. Wiswell was called to serve as pastor of the Congregationalist Church at New Casco in 1756.  In 1764, he traveled to England where he was ordained as an Episcopal minister and returned to Portland in 1765 to serve as pastor of Portland’s newly established Episcopal church.  But Mr. Wiswell was a Tory and shortly after the American Revolution began, he took refuge in Boston and later returned to England.  After the war, he accepted an offer to serve as pastor of a church in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia.

Commodore Edward Preble

Peter Smith (Harvard 1753), son of the Rev. Thomas Smith, opened a school on the Neck in 1755, but the following year he moved to Windham.  He was succeeded by a Mr. Wallace who kept a schoolhouse on the corner of Middle and School (now Pearl) Streets, where Stephen Longfellow had also taught.  Also in 1756, Jonathan Webb (Harvard 1754) came to Portland and soon opened another school on King (now India) Street.  He was known to his students as a strict disciplinarian and, when he was well out of ear shot, they called him “pithy Webb” because he had a habit of putting the pith of a quill in his mouth when he cut it.  When a young student, Edward Preble, who would later become the distinguished naval commodore, almost broke Schoolmaster Webb of his habit by making the pith of the quill next to be cut very disgustingly distasteful.

Theophilus Parsons

Portland’s next schoolmaster, Moses Holt (Harvard 1767), taught but a very few years before he died of consumption (tuberculosis) at age 27.  Samuel Freeman (attended Harvard), a former student of Stephen Longfellow and later Judge of Probate for Cumberland County, kept a public school on the Neck in 1764, which became a private school the following year.  In 1767,

William McMahan opened a school at Woodford’s Corner and boys from the Neck who were in need of discipline were sent to him because he had a reputation as a severe by very good teacher.

Theophilus Parsons (Harvard 1769), who was to become the distinguished Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, opened a school on the Neck in 1770.  While fulfilling his teaching responsibilities, Parsons read law under Theophilus Bradbury and was admitted to the Cumberland Bar in July of 1774.  His school was on King (now India) Street, and later on Back (now Congress) Street.  John Frothingham (Harvard 1771) also kept a school here and studied law under Mr. Bradbury with Mr. Parsons.  In 1790, John Frothingham would be appointed by U.S. District Court Judge David Sewall to serve as a defense attorney for Thomas Bird and Hans Hanson who were charged in the murder of Captain John Connor.  Hanson was acquitted, but Bird has the dubious honor of being the first person to be executed under the authority of the then new U.S. Constitution.

[1] Willis, William.  History of Portland, pp. 365-66.

[2] Ibid. p. 367.

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Portland Head Light. Courtesy State of Maine.

There were no lighthouses on the coast of Maine in 1784 when a group of merchants submitted a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature requesting the construction of a light at Portland Head, which was then part of the town of Falmouth, but is now within the boundaries of the town of Cape Elizabeth.  In 1786, when the residents of Falmouth Neck broke away from the town of Falmouth, they took their new name from the promontory long known to mariners as Portland Head.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ca 1843. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Initially, nothing happened, but in 1787, three years after the petition was submitted, two people were killed in a shipwreck at Bangs (now Cushing) Island, near Portland Head, and the Massachusetts Legislature appropriated $750 for the immediate construction of a lighthouse.

Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols, two local masons, were hired to build a stone tower 58 feet high, but funds ran out before the project was completed.  Then, in 1790, the same year that Thomas Bird, an English seaman, was tried and hung in Portland for piracy and murder, the U.S. Congress appropriated $1,500 to finish the job.  It was determined, however, that the light could not be seen from the south and the plan was changed to make the tower 72 feet high.  Bryant resigned in protest, and Nichols finished the lighthouse in January 1791.

Keeper Joshua Strout 1869-1904.

Captain Joseph Greenleaf, a veteran of the American Revolution, was appointed to serve as the first keeper at Portland Head Light, which went into service on January 10, 1791.  Greenleaf died in October of 1795, while fishing in his boat on the Fore River, and he was replaced for a short period by David Duncan, who in turn was succeeded by Barzillai Delano, a blacksmith, who became keeper in 1796.

Winslow Lewis, a contractor, advised in November of 1812 that the upper portion of the tower was poorly built, and the lantern was also poorly constructed.  He recommended lowering the tower 20 feet and installing a new lantern, which was done in 1813.

The Annie C. Maguire wreck.

Brazillai Delano died in 1820, the year that Maine separated from Massachusetts.  He was succeeded by his son, James, who served as keeper from 1854-61.  The next keeper was Joshua Freeman who, according to local legend, kept a supply of rum that he sold to visitors for three cents a glass.

A sign posted at Fort Williams Park reads:  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow often walked from Portland to visit this Lighthouse.  The Keepers were his friends and it is believed he sat her for inspiration for his poem “The Lighthouse”.

“Sail on, Sail on ye stately ships,

And with your floating bridge

The ocean span.

Be mine to guard this light

From all eclipse.

Be yours to bring man near

Unto man.”

Keeper Joseph Strout.

A Fresnel lens replaced the lamps in 1855, and after 40 people died in the wreck of the English ship Bohemian in 1864, the top 20 foot section ofthe tower was restored.  In 1869, Captain Joshua Strout, a native of Cape Elizabeth and a former sea captain, became the light’s keeper.  Joshua and his wife, Mary, raised eleven children in the keeper’s house.  Their parrot, Billy, a well-known member of the household, was said to help Keeper Strout watch for inclement weather, which always prompted Billy to say, “Joe, let’s start the horn. It’s foggy!”  Billy lived to be over 80 years old, and It is also said that, in his declining years, his favorite pastime was listening to the radio.

Keeper Frank Hilt 1929-44.

When the Halfway Rock Light was completed in 1871 on a rocky ledge in Casco Bay near the town of Harpswell, authorities determined that Portland Head Light was less important than it had been and the tower was, once again, shortened by 20 feet in 1883.  However, there were many complaints and one year later the tower was restored to its former height.  Three years later, the English bark Annie ran aground on the rocks at Portland Head.  The Strout family managed to get a line to the vessel and rescued all aboard, including the captain’s wife.  On a rock near the lighthouse there is a painted inscription: Annie C. Maguire, shipwrecked here, Christmas Eve 1886.

C. Maguire

Keeper Robert Thayer Sterling.

By the turn of the century, Joshua Strout was the oldest keeper on the Maine coast.  He retired in 1904, and died three years later, at age 81.  Joshua was succeeded as keeper by his son, Joseph, who remained until 1928, ending 59 years of the Strout family at Portland Head.  Captain Frank O. Hilt of St. George, Maine, became keeper in 1929 and remained until 1944.  According to the Lighthouse Museum, one of Hilt’s “more unusual accomplishments was the construction of a giant checkerboard near the base of the lighthouse tower.”

The last civilian keeper was Robert Thayer Sterling, of Peaks Island, who succeeded Hilt and remained until he retired in 1946.  Then

the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for Portland Head Light until August 7, 1989.  In October of 1993, the property was deeded to the Town of Cape Elizabeth.  (Note: Unless otherwise noted, photos are provided courtesy of the Portland Headlight Museum.)

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General Peleg Wadsworth's house and store on Back (now Congress) Street in Portland, 1786. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

Silhouette of General Peleg Wadsworth.

Peleg Wadsworth was born in Duxbury, Massachusetts, May 6, 1748, to Peleg and Susanna (Sampson) Wadsworth.  He graduated from Harvard College in 1769 and gained employment as a school teacher in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he met Elizabeth Bartlett (1753-1829).  They were married in 1772, and settled in Kingston, Massachusetts, until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, when he organized a company of minutemen and was chosen captain.  He was promoted to the rank of brigadier general in 1777, and was appointed Adjutant General of Massachusetts in 1778.

In 1779, General Wadsworth served as second-in-command to General Solomon Lovell, commander of land forces sent to attack a British fort at Castine, Maine.  The engagement, known as the Penobscot Expedition, was one of the worst naval defeats in American history.  Commodore Dudley Saltonstall was in overall command of the naval forces, which consisted of 43 warships representing most of the American fleet.  Lt. Colonel Paul Revere also served in this campaign as the

commander of artillery.  Generals Lovell and Wadsworth went ashore at Castine with 1,150 Continental Marines and militiamen.  Some 400 of the troops under General Wadsworth scaled a cliff under constant enemy fire and though they suffered 100 casualties, they laid siege to the British fort over a period of two weeks.  But Commodore Saltonstall was so shaken by their heavy losses that he refused to land reinforcements, which allowed time for the arrival of British reinforcements.  Saltonstall ordered Lovell to retreat and over the next two days the American fleet, though superior in strength, fled up the Penobscot River pursued by the British.  Some of the American vessels were captured, but most ran aground and were torched and then abandoned.  All 43 of the ships were lost.  Commodore Saltonstall was blamed for the disaster.  He was later court-martialed and relieved of his command.

The following year, in March, General Wadsworth was given command of the entire Maine Militia.  On February 17, 1781, British soldiers from Fort George in Castine overran his headquarters in Thomaston.  He was captured and imprisoned, but he and his cellmate, Maj. Benjamin Burton, escaped one night and made their way back to Thomaston.  Later, he joined his family in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where he remained until the war was over.

Mrs. Anne Longfellow Pierce. Courtesy Maine Historical Society.

After the war, in April of 1784, General Wadsworth returned to Maine and purchased a lot of land on Back (now Congress) Street in Portland.  He engaged in surveying and over the next two years ordered enough bricks from Philadelphia to construct the first entirely brick home built on Portland Neck.  For many years he operated a store out of a barn built beside the house.  In 1814, after a roof fire, a third floor was added to the house, and in 1901 the property was left to the Maine Historical Society by General Wadsworth’s granddaughter, Mrs. Anne Longfellow Pierce whose brother, the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, grew up in the house, which is today known as the Wadsworth-Longfellow House.

In 1790, General Peleg Wadsworth and his family probably sat on their wide window seats and watched U.S. Marshal Henry Dearborn lead Thomas Bird to the gallows on Bramhill Hill where Bird was executed for the murder of Captain John Connor, master of the sloop Mary.  That year, General Wadsworth purchased 7,800 acres of land about 40 miles northwest of Portland.

In addition to his military service, General Peleg Wadsworth served as a presidential elector and a member of the Massachusetts Senate, and from 1793-1807 was the first representative in Congress from the District of Maine.  In 1800 he built Wadsworth Hall on his land to the northwest, and in January of 1807 he moved there where, on February 27 that same year, he incorporated the town of Hiram.  He devoted the remainder of his life to farming and local civil service, and died in Hiram on July 18, 1829.  He is buried in the family cemetery at Wadsworth Hall.

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