The Brownfield that vanished in the autumn of 1947 was never brought back until now. More than half a century after the town was almost completely destroyed by fire, the elegant 19th-century homes and businesses on its elm-shaded streets and the sprawling farms have all reappeared in a spectacular new illustrated history.
We who first saw Brownfield in the early 1950s remember it as a barren, depressing landscape of stunted trees, heavily sprinkled with Quonset huts and tarpaper shacks. A few boxy, prefabricated homes seemed luxurious by comparison.
Except for some houses near the Shepard River, and one here and there that had been far enough from the woods, nearly every building in the village appeared to be new — although many of the temporary dwellings were already deteriorating. There seemed to be but one village, with little commercial activity, for flourishing East Brownfield had been so completely incinerated that its separate identity from Brownfield Centre was lost on all but those who had grown up there.
For a decade or so after the fire, the town’s name seemed altogether too appropriate, because it wore a brown and withered look all year round.
Only the dimmest picture of the enchanting and energetic early-1900s community emerged from William Teg’s 1966 “History of Brownfield, Maine,” as welcome as that book was at the time.
Teg, an osteopath who lived in Hiram, undertook an ambitious organization of local information that he presented in the traditional manner of town histories. Beginning with Darby Field’s ascent of the Saco in 1642, Teg plowed through the Indian wars and land grants, covering the town’s settlement in a single chapter that carried the reader to Brownfield’s incorporation.
After paying perfunctory homage to the geology and vegetation in a few pages of dense detail, he offered a fragmented account of Brownfield’s cultural progress, which he examined by industry and institution. Brief chapters each described the development of the town’s government, water-powered mills, roads, schools, churches, post offices and its more curious place names.
As had been customary in town histories since the 1840s, when they were sold principally by subscription, Teg concentrated heavily on genealogy, and he never ventured far from the flattering side of that category.
More than half of his 200-page book consisted of family histories. Much of the rest was devoted to what people of an earlier day would have called “the best men” of the town — professionals and politicians, mostly, for back then, politics was often still considered an honorable occupation. Luminaries of the arts and sciences earned some attention, too, and Brownfield had more of them than a passing stranger might have guessed, at least in the wake of the fire.
It was the fire that concluded Teg’s book, and it may have been the fire that inspired it. In 1966, nearly all Brownfield adults remembered that disaster, and most could recall what the town had looked like. The people who still formed the core of the community may have feared that their history might disappear all the more easily because the architectural landscape had been erased.
Teg’s history was, therefore, a valuable asset. It preserved a trove of family tradition and oral history that might otherwise have been lost, and documented connections between people and properties that would have been forgotten within another generation.
That book is nevertheless one to be consulted, rather than consumed for pleasure. The information about people and their places of business and residence was difficult to process geographically because the one town map was so old and small. Scores of illustrations did not really succeed in putting a face on the community because so many were obscured in one way or another in the process of reproduction.
Such shortcomings have been eliminated from “Brownfield, Maine: An Illustrated History,” put together by Bradford A. Fuller. He began the book as a digitized version of Teg’s title, but it has been so heavily revised and improved that it is indisputably a new work. All that survives of Teg’s book within the pages of Fuller’s are a modified adherence to his topical structure and some of the information about the characters he describes — plus, perhaps, his selection of some of those characters. The majority of the text has been rewritten or replaced by quotations from relevant sources, most of which are at least partially identified.
Fuller’s personal connection to Brownfield goes back to the 1970s, not counting a distant relative he found buried in Pine Grove Cemetery behind his home. For more than two decades, he and his wife have owned one of the few buildings that survived the fire, operating a business that has evolved from bakery to cafe to frame shop and art gallery, with lodging for nightly guests. Over a dozen years ago, he started rambling about town, photographing the natural surroundings and researching the cultural environment. Some of the results are included in this history, which he undertook to benefit the Brownfield Historical Society and the Brownfield Public Library.
Even in the first few pages, the most obvious attraction of Fuller’s book is the profusion of illustrations, a large proportion of which appear in color, including some vintage black-and-white images that Fuller has colorized. The quality of the paper and printing makes for a striking first impression that tends to improve with further inspection. Abundant photographs dating from the 1850s through the eve of the great fire reveal the Brownfield of yesteryear in a way that is new to this reviewer, despite a lifetime spent within a mile of the Brownfield town line.
A number of sweeping aerial images suggest the relatively rural peace of the present in brilliant autumn foliage, and Fuller provides his own stunning photographs of the flora and fauna.
The bucolic past of the region is portrayed in well-chosen oils by Albert Bierstadt and onetime Fryeburg resident Eastman Johnson. Augustus A. Gibson, a career soldier who retired to his native Brownfield in 1870, depicted more specifically local scenes in placid watercolors, several of which appear in the book, as do paintings by Brownfield visitor George Albert Frost. A unique view down the hill on Dugway Road appears in a canvas reminiscent of Grant Wood or Thomas Hart Benton. In fact, it was painted by Alfred Doane, an amateur artist who was married to Brownfield columnist Myrtle Doane.
Despite such excellent artistic selection, the illustrations that most effectively evoke the vibrancy and surprising elegance of Brownfield’s prosperous villages in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the photographs by Granville C. Poore.
Born in Brownfield in January of 1845, Poore enlisted in the 11th Maine Volunteers on Feb. 26, 1862. He served less than four uneventful months before he was discharged for “sunstroke,” but his regimental band included Nathan W. Pease, a Cornish native who had already spent a couple of years as a photographer in North Conway. They may have connected, because only a few months after Poore went home, Pease also was discharged early, returning immediately to his studio in North Conway. Poore went whole hog into photography soon thereafter.
Poore’s crisp images of everyday Brownfield scenes are the core of Fuller’s book. Poore is credited for 100 of the illustrations, but some of the uncredited photos show similar clarity and compositional style.
Poore was the only professional photographer in town. He was very good — and fortunately very prolific, because three decades after his death, the Brownfield fire probably burned up most of the town’s private photograph collections.
One interesting shot near the middle of the book, apparently taken shortly after the summer of 1901, shows the Red Men’s Hall in East Brownfield, beside the rail depot, with a “tonsorial parlor” and Fred Bradbury’s store on the first floor. There, the facial lotions, perfumes and pomades on the barber’s sign are discernible, as are the boots, shoes, tobacco products, fancy groceries and ices in Bradbury’s store. On the front steps sit two small boys, one of them so young he’s still wearing a dress, and the older one seems to be enjoying an ice cream while a drayman loads up from a railroad car nearby. If the boys stayed on in Brownfield, they would still have been in full vigor when all those scenes of their childhood succumbed to the flames.
Granville Poore’s most imposing photographs were taken at the beginning of the 20th century from the middle of the broad street through Brownfield Centre.
The heart of the center did not then lie on the plain between Routes 160 and 113, as it does today, but on the plateau and near Main Street’s junction with Dugway Road, between Peary Mountain Road and the library. Within a little over half a mile stood the town hall, two schools, two churches, two stores, two blacksmith shops, a carriage shop, a small hotel called the Pequawket House and more than 30 homes. Maples and elms lined either side of the street, with a sidewalk running along one side.
While several of Poore’s photographs of East Brownfield and Brownfield Centre were published in Teg’s 1966 history, they failed to convey the grandeur of a village at its agricultural and industrial maturity.
But Fuller’s book succeeds wonderfully in that regard. Comparing Poore’s scenes with Nathan Pease’s stereographs of Conway from the same era, it isn’t obvious that Conway would have been the more satisfactory place to live. Brownfield had only one-third the population of Conway by 1900, but it provided a high school for its students years before Conway did. Brownfield supplied three times as many Union soldiers as Conway had, too. This reflected a different political landscape and perhaps economic disparity, but it also may have spoken to a more ingrained spirit of civic responsibility.
The aesthetic appeal of Fuller’s illustrated history encourages a lingering eye that Teg’s never did. That should prove effective in expanding the audience for Brownfield’s history, especially because it will be much more attractive to a younger readership.
No book lacks flaws, however, and the most apparent of them in this one fall within the chapter on the Civil War, where historical interpretation falters a little. Only one innocuous note is quoted from James Brown’s deliciously acerbic letters from the front, which could have illuminated town politics and the economic tensions between Brownfield farmers and merchants. Several illustrations are misidentified, including a photo of a young man wearing an Army uniform and haircut from 1917, which a family member evidently mistook for a portrait of an ancestor who fought in the Union army. And the late-life imaginings of a female “soldier” earn greater emphasis here than Teg gave them in 1966, yet the factual details that discredit her claims are much more readily available today — although, in defense of this work, a Civil War specialist at the National Archives fell for the same story in 2003.
Those minor defects are quickly forgotten in the final chapter, although “chapter” isn’t quite the right word for what is essentially a gallery of captioned photos.
The Great Fire closes Fuller’s history, as it did Teg’s, but again Fuller outshines his predecessor. This is the most powerful portion of the book, vividly demonstrating how the thriving, picture-postcard villages that Poore immortalized were both reduced to cinders within a few hours on the evening of Oct. 23, 1947. After the extended visual tour of Brownfield’s transformation from virgin forest to flourishing community, the graphic display of the fire’s aftermath reawakens the air of desolation that struck passersby in the early years of the town’s recovery.
Fuller’s illustrated history revives a vision of what used to be, but it also suggests what could be again. The grim, determined glance of Alvin Blake as he cleared debris from the fire evinced the self-sufficiency once so common among New Englanders who did not wait for the government to come to their rescue.
It may have been more modest than its former self, but the Brownfield that emerged from the ashes validated the restorative potential of a personal attachment to place, which our transient society seems to have lost.
A young Brownfield man voiced that stubborn sense of geographic belonging just two days after the fire, when a reporter accosted him amid the rubble. Anticipating tales of gloom and desperation, the reporter asked where would he live, now that his house was gone.
“Why, here,” he replied, as though incredulous that he should ever consider leaving. In the end, the crucial factor that kept Brownfield from dying was the inhabitants’ devotion to — and dependence on — the fragment of the planet they called home.
William Marvel is an award-winning author who specializes in 19th-century American history, with particular focus on the Civil War era; he is a third-generation denizen of Davis Hill, in South Conway, now living in the house where he grew up.
“Brownfield, Maine: An Illustrated History” is available at Edge of Maine Art and Framing located at 182 Main St. in Brownfield, Maine; at the Brownfield Historical Society; the Brownfield Public Library; and online at edgeeditions.com. The cost is $35.