First Settlements in the Saco Valley

The pioneers who contemplated permanent settlement were sometimes squatters on the soil for several years before a title to their claim could be secured, as old letters relating to such transactions, now at hand, clearly prove. When the newcomer “pitched” upon a lot some distance from the cabins of those who had preceded him in settlement, a rude puncheon-and-bark camp was built. The woodman felled a goodly number of straight spruces, or chestnut trees, and cut them into sections, some eight feet in length. These were split into halves and set in a narrow trench, two feet in depth, excavated in the ground. On the inside, ribs were tree-nailed to the upright puncheons, which constituted the wall, to hold them in place. The roof was usually constructed of light poles covered with broad squares of chestnut bark; sometimes “shingled” with bark peeled from the white birch. At one side a light frame or platform was raised two feet above the ground and covered with cedar or hemlock boughs for a couch. This rude hut served as a shelter from the storms by day and a place of rest at night. We may designate this class the first generation of Saco valley houses.

To this remote habitation a quantity of provision sufficient to last a few weeks was carried; then, pushing up his sleeves and his coon-skin cap from his bronzed brow, the pioneer began to hew the forest down and lay the foundation for his future home. From the dewy morning until the deep shadows fell over the wilderness, the metallic ring of the axe could be heard, interrupted only by the echo-raising crash of some forest monarch, or the short intermission of the noon-time meal. Thus, day succeeded day, while the old primeval forest that had withstood the tempest shock of centuries, yielded to the ruthless axe. The “cut-down” expanded into an “opening,” and the opening into a “clearing,” the whole being an overture to the warming sun-shine and refreshing dew.

The work of felling trees was greatly facilitated by the somewhat dangerous method called “driving.” This was accomplished by under-cutting the trees upon a considerable area, on one and the same side, until a number sufficient for a “drove” were ready to be driven down; then a heavy tree, which stood in the rear of this “wounded army,” was selected for a “driver” and felled upon the nearest neighboring tree, which fell in turn, carrying others down in its descent, like Indians in the bowling alley, until an acre was covered with “fallen heroes.”

When several acres had been cut, it was necessary to wait for the wood to season before the torch was put in. It was during this interval that the log-house was put up. Many of these, which we denominate the second generation of houses, were constructed of round logs cut from saplings; but the better class, designed for a more permanent domicile, were built of hewed timber prepared with much labor. On the occasion of “rolling up the log-house,” as the process was called, it became necessary to call for the assistance of the neighboring settlers, for, when the walls of the house had been raised to a considerable height, the combined strength of several men was required in placing the heavy timbers. One by one the tiers were laid on, neatly dove-tailed at the corners and firmly tree-nailed together. The openings between the logs were sometimes filled on the inside with triangular shaped ribs hewed out with the narrow axe and pinned in place. On the outside, after being thoroughly “chinked” with meadow or tree moss, the openings were plastered with clay mortar.

The chimneys were laid up of rude stones upon the outside of the walls of the house at one end, and sometimes “topped out” with sticks or an empty cask. The fireplaces were so enormously wide, and high withal, that the person of studious proclivity could sit upon the hearthstone and, looking upward through the “fine” which opened to the outer world, read the heavenly runes that marked the “great dipper,” the “yard-ell,” and consider the sweet influences of the Pleiades and the bands of Orion.

In the front walls of these cabins two or three openings were left for the door and windows. Rude frames were attached to the squared ends of the timbers and filled with oiled paper, which was sufficiently translucent to admit the light, and too dense to satisfy the inquisitive stranger from without when passing; a sort of window and curtain combined, you see; probably the suggestive precursor of ground glass. When a heavy plank door had been attached by long wooden hinges, a puncheoned floor laid, and some pins driven into the wall within for the family wardrobe, the log-house was ready for occupancy.

The furnishing of these primitive dwellings was of the most simple and inexpensive character. At the fireside was a high-backed settle, sometimes called the “resting chair,” for heads of the family, while the young folks sat on saw-blocks, usually called by the pioneers “on-marchantable shingle-bolts.” The eating-table was made from a single plank, hewed into form with an axe and supported upon legs driven into augur holes. A few shelves laid on long tree-nails driven into the wall timbers served for the dishes, and a cleat with slots of various sizes constituted a rack for table cutlery and spoons. Water for culinary purposes was brought from a woodland spring in a home-made bucket which reposed upon a block in a corner.

We have now reached a point in our descriptive summary where a problem of intricate character must be solved. It has been laid down as a philosophical fact that no two bodies of equal proportions can occupy the same space at the same time. Now, then, here about this fireside there are ten robust children to be disposed of for the night, to be provided with places of rest. “Where on airth,” as old folks would say, can room be found for them all .” The growing boys and girls were much too heavy for suspending upon pegs in the wall, and baskets for stowage seemed to be wanting. Of course there was a great high bed in one corner, well supplied with warm blankets in winter, but this was the parental couch. However, we shall see that the inventive faculties of the pioneer fathers and mothers were exercised to economize and utilize space; every square inch of the small house was put to some practical use. Hidden away from the eye of the curious visitor, and hovered by the great bed, was a primitive article of furniture with a capacity as elastic as the conscience of a congressman. Let us pull this semi-vehicle from its day-time seclusion; it ran on wheels and was appropriately called a “trundle-bed,” otherwise, “truckle-bed.” It was of humble stature, but as broad and long as the space assigned for it under the big bed would admit of. We must now fancy an experiment in the art of packing rawhide. Ned has become drowsy and calls for his share of the trundle-bed; he is well tucked in at one side. Soon Bill was in correct feather for rest and he was laid alongside his snoring brother. Now Zeke demands attention, as his head drops forward in his chair, and his father assigns him a portion of space in the gang-bed. Sam has gone to sleep upon the hearth-rug beside the dog and Bob is snoozing on his father’s knee; these are also stowed away in the head tier. Was that bed full then.’ Why, bless your stars, no. There are three curly-headed lassies still to be disposed of. Molly, Sally, and Charity must find a place in the same accommodating couch, in the end opposite to that occupied by their brothers, who, packed hard together, “spoon fashion,” were now wallowing over the shady moors of dreamland. All are in the embrace of nature’s sweet restorer. By the father’s side little Mercy shall find repose, while baby Jim nestles upon his mother’s protecting arm. Such old-time beds were saturated with sleep. Now we breathe easier.

These log-houses were warm and comfortable when well built and served the settler’s purpose until facilities for preparing better building materials were available. To just such dwellings hundreds of the pioneers of the Saco valley led their young wives, and in such some of the noblest spirits whose names have graced the pages of American history first saw the light. More-over, the members of these early families extracted as much comfort out of existence while living in these humble abodes as when, subsequently, they were settled in their more capacious farm-houses and supplied with more pretentious furnishing. However, we have fancied that some of the young wives, who had been Iived in homes westward, where the more refined associations of an older settlement had been enjoyed, must have keenly felt the sacrifices submitted to when they began life in the wilderness. This is illustrated by an old manuscript, now at hand, written by a man when rising eighty, who was one of the first pioneers of the plantation in early life. In this document he has described, with great fullness of detail, the many deprivations to which he and his brother submitted when they established themselves in the backwoods.

The winter following their first summer’s work at making a clearing on their claim was passed in a small cabin without the cheering companionship of woman. Eight bushels of corn had been purchased in the autumn; this was reduced to meal and carried on their shoulders eight miles to their cabin. The same number of bushels of potatoes were stored in a rude cellar under the floor, for which boards were drawn by the brothers on a hand-sled sixteen miles through the woods over the early snows.

During winter their vegetables were all frozen but were boiled, mixed with meal, and baked into “potato-bread,” in a Dutch oven buried in coals. Without sauce or sweetening, and with no meat with the exception of an occasional rabbit, partridge, or fish, these isolated men passed the long New England winter, surrounded by a wilderness, remote from other human beings, their low hut almost buried under the accumulated snow — but quite contented and comfortable.

The following spring, the elder brother went to Portsmouth, where he was married, and brought his young wife by shallop to the mouth of Saco river. Here he found his brother in waiting and the three carried by footpath the meager stock of household goods and belongings to their prospective home in the interior. He writes: “My dear wife was cheerful and right well pleased on our journey until we reached the borders of our clearing, where she saw amid the fallen timber the house in which she was to live; then she remembered the good home she had left behind, and sat down upon a log and wept. She soon recovered her composure, however, and went bravely forward. For more than a year from the day when she left the settlement at Saco, she did not see the face of one of her sex.”

During the second winter the anticipated appearance of an additional member to the household made it necessary to procure the services of a nurse. The unmarried brother mounted a horse, and, leading another with an unoccupied lady’s saddle, started through the deep snow on his urgent errand. On reaching the nearest settlement he found a woman who consented to undertake the journey and who accompanied him back to his home. Their progress through the drifts was slow, and when they arrived at their destination the little stranger had opened his eyes in the cabin and was lustily experimenting with his new-found voice. From that glad hour the uprising of maternal affection was manifested in many a lullaby sung soft and sweet to the time of the cradle rock, while the father’s heart grew warmer, and his arms stronger for toil, as his willing ears were saluted by the prattling voice of his offspring.

When the enormous burden of timber and brushwood had been burned off, and the rain had carried the strength of the fertilizing ashes into the virgin soil, a thousand hitherto latent seeds, deposited there by the Creator in the beginning, were developed by sunshine and moisture and sprang forth in luxuriant abundance to cover the black and unsightly ground with pleasing verdure.

Before the plow could be used, corn was planted, and rye sowed, upon the “burn.” The former was “dug in” with a heavy hoe and the latter “hacked in” with the same implement. This was sometimes done before the settler found time to pile up the charred logs; nevertheless, it grew rank and tall, even to the stature of the tallest man, and reached forth its broad green leaves in great extent. On one of these “ricks” an aged man told me he raised one hundred and fifty bushels of beautiful, fully ripe, shelled corn, before the logs were piled, and which, having been harvested before he had a family, was turned over to pay for his land.

In one of the new clearings of a Saco valley township about forty miles from the mouth of the river, two boys were left at a camp to care for the growing corn, and drive the bears away, from June until September. One of these sons informed me, when he was nearing the century line, that he and his brother became very lonesome at times and used to climb a mountain-side and look down river with the hope of seeing their father coming. They obeyed the orders given them in the spring, saw the growing corn mature, enjoyed excellent health, and survived to relate to their puny, degenerate descendants, who had been reaping the fruits of their father’s toil, earned by many an aching back and sweating brow, their experiences of vicissitude and hardship.


Ridlon, G. T., Sr. Saco Yalley Settlements And Families: Historical, Biographical, Genealogical, Traditional, and Legendary. Embracing the most important events on the Saco River, from their plantation to the present, with memorials of the families and individuals instrumental in their settlement, advancement and prosperity. Portland, ME: Published by the author. 1895.

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