Friday, September 30, 2011

Hidden along the banks of the Harraseeket River Pettengill Farm is a house full of very old secrets

Although I enjoy researching and writing about history, I love it when history simply smacks me in the face. For example, I didn’t know anything about Freeport’s lovely Pettengill Farm until one gorgeous summer day in 1974 when it suddenly loomed over my head and announced its presence. At the time I was living on Staples Point near the Harraseeket River and enjoyed canoeing far up into the tidal streams near Mast Landing.
The Pettengill House in Freeport is a treasure that has survived for over 200 years without ever being"modernized" with electricity or indoor plumbing.

 What I saw on that hill overlooking my canoe looked like a movie set for colonial Salem. In the photograph you can see the northwest corner of the Pettengill House. The long sloping roof of its “saltbox” style was designed to carry the cold north wind up and away from the farmhouse while the double row of windows on the southern facade invited in the sunshine. What we now describe as a clever bit of passive solar engineering was probably just viewed as common sense in the old days.
The more I learned about the Pettengill House, the more mysterious it became. The saltbox style suggested a home from the late 17th to mid 18th century, but I discovered that all of the earliest settlers’ homes in what is now the Yarmouth and Freeport area were destroyed in a series of bloody Indian wars in the 1670’s and 1680’s. When these early homes were abandoned or burned, their owners fled to Boston if they were lucky.
 An archaeological dig at the Pettengill farm in 1978 confirmed that an older building did occupy the site in the late 1600’s and was destroyed by fire. This interrupted settlement pattern meant that many decades later when settlers returned to the area, they were more likely to use newer architectural styles such as Georgian/Colonial. When Joseph and Aaron Lufkin built the current Pettengill house around 1800, they were apparently influenced by the old saltbox homes they had known in Gloucester, Massachusetts where they had grown up. 
Around 1850 a Porters Landing sea captain and store owner named Charles Pettengill bought the farm and 120 acres. After 1925 the farm was being run by his grandchildren Frank and Millie Pettengill, neither of whom ever married. They eked out a subsistence lifestyle, raising their own food and earning cash mostly from the sale of milk. They plowed their fields with a horse and cut their own ice in the winter. Millie walked everywhere to collect local plants and combined them into beautiful flower gardens.

 Unfortunately, as they grew older, it became much more difficult for Frank and Millie to live by themselves in a house that was heated only by wood and never modernized with plumbing and electricity. In 1959, their situation attracted the attention of Lawrence M.C. Smith and his wife Eleanor who offered the Pettengills a kind of reverse mortgage. The arrangement gave Frank and Millie some financial security and the right to live at the farm even though the title to the land passed to the Smiths.

Before she died at the age of 98, Millie told the Smiths about another mysterious feature of the house. She described whales, sea monsters and old sailing ships that were scratched into the plaster walls. This “sgraffitti” as it was called, had been hidden under layers of wallpaper. Oddly enough, these images sometimes refer to events from the War of 1812, which was a time when the house was probably not even occupied. 
Mysterious images scratched on the walls and a secret packet of letters in the attic
add to the mysteries of the Pettengill Farm.

Personally, I think the most fascinating mystery associated with the Pettengill farm is the packet of letters found in the attic after the property was transferred to the Freeport Historical Society. To find out more about Millie’s secret romance and what it was really like to live at the Pettengill Farm, I highly recommend seeing the video Words from Millie’s Garden. This documentary by Ronald J. Gillis is available from the Freeport Historical Society. Visit their website, or stop by their museum at 45 Main Street in Freeport to see what archaeologists have discovered at the Pettengill farm. The current exhibit is called “Diggin’ History: Piecing Together Pettengill Farm’s Past.”

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