This article originally appeared in The Mountain Ear’s Sept. 28, 1984, edition and profiles the work of Helen Leadbeater, who died Dec. 5, 1988, at age 86, and Eve Barbour, who died in 1990. The Mountain Ear newspaper was an award-winning weekly lifestyle publication co-founded in 1976 by Jane Golden Reilly and the late Steve Eastman (1949-2008). Eastman sold the paper to Salmon Press in 2005. Its last edition was in 2014. Many stories published prior to the paper’s sale are now posted at mtearchronicles.com.
FRYEBURG, Maine — Come to the Mount Washington and Saco River valleys, get away from it all and enjoy a bountiful life. That is what is luring many people to the area, what lured the early settlers in the 1700s and what may have lured the earliest inhabitants of the valley, the Native Americans, as many as 10,000 years ago.
Though many residents give little thought to the original residents of the beautiful, and at one time bountiful, valley, it comes as no surprise to many farmers and rockhounds that this area was once home to traveling groups of Native Americans.
They have tangible proof of their presence — collections of artifacts ranging from perfectly formed arrowheads to pieces of decorated pottery and many examples of the everyday tools of the earlier inhabitants.
For farmers, finding traces of the long-gone Native American population is as easy as walking through a newly plowed field.
Turning over the soil brings buried items to the surface, and if the item hasn’t been too badly mangled by the plow, it immediately stands out as something foreign to the untrained eye.
Over the years, many farmers have picked up and brought home their findings, taking for granted the fact that such artifacts are scattered throughout the valley. Others continue to let them lie where they are.
Mineralogists, referred to as rockhounds, of course are always looking for rocks of any sort. Those brought to the area (many used for tools by the Native Americans were not indigenous to this valley) stand out to their experienced eyes.
The extensive collections of Native American artifacts of two Fryeburg women, Helen Leadbeater and Eve Barbour, came about in a more direct way. Neither woman is from the area, but both have taken an extensive interest in the history of their adopted town and its environs.
“The newer people seem more interested in the history of the town,” said Leadbeater, a direct descendant of one of Fryeburg’s early settlers. “I guess it’s the sort of thing that develops when you move into a place.”
“History and archaeology are two different things,” explained Leadbeater, “but all this started because I was interested in history.” A 1934 graduate of Swarthmore as a history major, Leadbeater moved to Fryeburg in 1939 when she inherited one of the town’s more famous houses, the Squire Chase house on Main Street.
Starting her investigations with the history of her new home, Leadbeater advanced to studying the past of the whole town after taking a position as the librarian in the Fryeburg Women’s Library.
“People would write or come in and ask questions, so I did a lot of research into the local history,” she said.
Feeling she had a good grasp of the town’s past, it is easy to understand her dismay when the state of Maine erected a standard in the center of town with names of historic note in the town, and one of those listed, Nescambouit, had escaped her.
“He was a Native American who had been knighted by the king of France,” she said, “and I had never even heard of him. I had a vision that all sorts of people would be coming in the library and ask about him. Nobody ever did, though. But I wrote the state library anyway, and they sent me a book of Native American biographies.”
This sparked a new interest. “I started trying to find out everything I could about the valley’s Indians,” Leadbeater said.
Five years were spent in research, with several trips to Portland gathering information at the library there. All information was carefully typed — “This was before Xeroxing,” she said — and filed for future reference. “Everyone assumed I was going to write a book, and I suppose I should,” Leadbeater added.
Thus, Leadbeater was intrigued to read a newspaper article about John Gray, a Fryeburg Harbor farmer, and his collection of Indian artifacts.
“It was the first I had heard that there were such things just lying around in the ground,” she said. “I immediately got my husband and went up to investigate.”
The Saco River once flowed through Fryeburg Harbor before the course of the river was shortened in 1820 and diverted to help prevent spring flooding in the fertile fields (hence today’s “Canal Bridge” on Route 5 over the “new” course).
Leadbeater arrived on the scene in late spring after high water had receded in the plowed fields.
“Water had just gone over the plowed fields and washed the dirt off Native American artifacts all over the place,” she said. “Mr. Gray gave us permission to go into the fields and look before he planted them. The sun would shine on the stones — it’s not naturally stony land — and we found things everywhere.”
On her first foray into archaeology, Leadbeater also picked up broken pieces of pottery. “The men weren’t interested in that,” she said.
The discovery of artifacts soon had her learning everything possible about archaeology.
“I joined the New Hampshire, Massachusetts and the Maine archaeology societies and learned quite a bit from them,” she said, “and also got quite a bit of books.”
She soon was following the proper techniques for digging and cataloguing items found.
“Though I did label things that I picked up, I learned it wasn’t enough just to lump those things together,” she explained. “I learned that if you look at this stuff, even though it is similar, at each one of the sites, there is some difference in the average. The next step is to start comparing things.”
Her comparisons have caused Leadbeater to agree with several anthropologists who concur that the Fryeburg area was occupied off and on for centuries by Native American villages of fairly small sizes. “Due to their hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, they didn’t stay too long in one place.”
Leadbeater continued to enlarge her collection with her own finds and those of others who knew of her interest. Most were surface finds, and these occurred almost everywhere she went — even at her favorite swimming place on Lovewell’s Pond.
In 1969, she learned of the uncovering of a site in Fryeburg Center that, through her research, she considered would prove fruitful. A house on Corn Shop Road was being moved, and the top soil of the front yard had been removed, revealing what was once the sandy bank of Bear Pond — a body of water that disappeared when the Saco River course was changed.
Approaching her friend and neighbor, Eve Barbour, who also had an interest in history, Leadbeater urged her to join her in a dig at this prime site.
“I had never given any thought to the (Native Americans) or that you could find that kind of stuff,” said Barbour, “but once you’ve found your first flake (the pieces that are chipped off when the Indians formed their tools), you are hooked.”
The two women took every opportunity to search for artifacts. “For a few years, it seemed like we devoted our lives to it,” said Barbour.
The methods of the two women differed — Leadbeater followed the advice of the books and dug carefully, slowly, sifting everything, while Barbour would attack the site with a shovel, much to the horror of her companion.
They were ecstatic to find evidence that Native Americans had camped right on the very spot they were digging.
“We found a lot of pottery, flakes, arrowheads,” said Barbour. “Using a probe, my husband found a stone ax about 15 inches down.”
Much time and effort was devoted to finding the plentiful artifacts.
“Digging for things is hard work,” said Barbour, “but we’d go out in the hot sun, or sit in the car to wait out a thunderstorm, just to spend time looking.”
One of Barbour’s best examples of pottery might have been even more complete if an oncoming tractor hadn’t forced her to give up the search. “He was heading right toward me,” she said, “and definitely thought that what he was doing was more important that what I was doing.”
The two women have extensive collections, with Leadbeater’s filling more than one room in her large home.
Examples of pottery are obviously of different eras, with decorations and style varying from the primitive cord-wrapped stick design on thick pottery to more sophisticated rocker dentate and incise patterns on beautifully shaped pieces.
Opening the boxes of her collection to illustrate the different styles, Leadbeater can remember the circumstances of each “find.”
The efforts of the two women have not gone unnoticed by archaeology experts in the state.
Two of their most complete examples of Native American pottery are on display at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.
Michael Gramly, an anthropologist/archeologist, has looked at both collections and determined some of the pieces to be 1,500-2,500 years old. Gramly was active in the paleo-Indian site in northwestern Maine, the Vail site at Aziscoos Lake near where Maine, New Hampshire and Quebec share borders, that archeologists have determined to be 11,000 years old.
“He was very interested in the things we had collected,” said Leadbeater, “but got a better job offer in Buffalo before he could do anything about it.”
Others who have shown interest in the collections also moved on to different areas, leaving both Leadbeater and Barbour still curious.
“An interest in archaeology sort of grows on you,” said Leadbeater. “I want to know who these (Native Americans) were. Were they always the same people? I want to know how long they lived here, if it was their descendants who returned each time. I want to know how long ago they were here. Right now, it’s all still lost history.”
Editor's Note: After Helen Leadbeater's death retired history teacher (and Sun OpEd columnist) Tom McLaughlin of Lovell was given permission by her son, David (a local poet who goes by the name Arizona Zipper) to photograph and catalog the collection, working with Fryeburg’s Diana Bell. McLaughlin is in the process of packing up the collection and per David's wishes moving part of it to the Maine State Museum. "The museum has had two ceramic pots of Helen’s on permanent display for many years. She dug up the fragments in Fryeburg and re-assembled them. Almost every archaeologist in New England has been to her home and viewed the collection," according to McLaughlin.