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Strawberry Preserves from Strawberry Creek?

As I have researched the property that Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) is working to preserve, two questions have niggled at me. The first is, “Why is this tidal creek named Strawberry Creek?” Like with Mill Cove or Widgeon Cove, can we simply assume the obvious — that the creek was known for wild strawberries?

If you craved strawberries in the winter before 1858, you would have preserved them in a way no one in her right mind would do today. It involved mashing three quarts of berries, boiling them in a kettle over a fire, pressing the mash through a cloth, adding a pound of sugar for every pint of juice, boiling again, adding another three quarts of berries, boiling, cooling, boiling, putting in jars, cooling, covering with tissue paper brushed over with egg white, and storing in a cold, dark place. And that’s after picking six quarts of berries and cutting, splitting, hauling, and stacking firewood.

That’s how Susan (Susanna) Stover Dunning or, later, Minerva Dunning Wyer would have preserved wild strawberries from their 35.5 acres along the east side of Strawberry Creek. It is the southern tip of this property and the nearby tiny island that could be HHLT’s newest piece of preserved land.

Strawberry Creek (Jeff Wood photo)

After 1858, strawberries could be canned in newly patented Mason jars using only two boilings and half the expensive sugar. In 1868, a newly patented rubber gasket replaced the wax layer that covered and sealed the fruit, jam, or jelly. Five Ball brothers began mass producing jars and lids by 1884, and home canning became both ubiquitous and safer.

Strawberry Creek was known by that name by 1822. It’s mentioned in a property description in a deed involving Samuel Dunning. Samuel married Susanna (Susan) Stover in 1825. Their marriage demonstrates a different use of the Strawberry Creek property. Upon marriage, Samuel gave Susan a right of dower to the property. It was an insurance policy of sorts, traditionally given by a husband to a wife the morning after the wedding. If the husband died, his widow would have financial resources of her own to carry on. This was a time when, if a woman married, all her property became that of her husband.

In this case, when the Dunnings sold their Strawberry Creek property to Henry Orr in 1848, Susan signed this statement: “…Susan Dunning, wife of the said Samuel Dunning in testimony of her relinquishment of her right of Dower in the above named premises.”* As an aside, on the same day, Henry Orr and his wife, Harriet Snow Orr, sold 35.5 acres also adjacent to Strawberry Creek to the Dunnings. Harriet also relinquished her right of dower. Each sale cost $200. Why did they trade land, and, given that $200 went both directions, what was their purpose? Did they mean to give it a value, to establish a market price?

Having traveled back in time by following deeds and maps, my other question is, Why did these landowners, who didn’t seem to live there, want to own it? Why? How did they use it? Access was by water at high tide. In a 1764 Town Meeting, citizens “Voted, to have a ferry started near the Narrows, a good ferry boat built and a convenient road for man and horse cleared to the head of Long Reach and over the head of Long Reach so called, at or before the first day of October next, and a ferry man to tend sd ferry on Sabbath days till half after nine of the clock in the morning and after meeting to ferry the people back again and to tend to Town Meetin[sic] days.”**

Maps from 1857 and 1871 show the lack of roads and scarcity of neighbors (see below). Compared to Harpswell Neck and Orr’s and Bailey Island, this part of Sebascodegan seemed remote — far from the settlement in Cundy’s Harbor and a swift current away from Harpswell Center. There was no easy way to borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor when making jams or jellies.

In 1854, Henry Orr sold the land to Robert Dunning for $300. Robert was Samuel and Susan’s son. Dunning then sold it to his nephew(?) David Stover Dunning in 1855 for the same price. And then David split ownership: In 1855, he sold a half-share to Joseph Dunning Wyer, a farmer who lived north of the property, as seen on the 1871 map. David Dunning farmed, I think, on the Neck. By 1870 he lived with his niece’s family and farmed only 12 acres, owning one horse, two cows, three sheep, and growing hay, potatoes, peas, and beans. Having owned his other half-share for 23 years, he sold it in 1878 to Horatio Toothaker for $150. Toothaker was a neighbor of the Dunning clan across the Ewing Narrows on Harpswell Neck. Dunning became a carpenter in Portland.

The Wyer and Dunning/Toothaker half-shares transferred separately through several owners until 1908. I had to make a spreadsheet and draw a timeline of ownership on a roll of wrapping paper to make sense of the complicated transfers of shares.

In 1901, a partnership of William E. Hunt and Abner J. Harris bought the Wyer half-share, and in 1908, they bought the Dunning/Toothaker half-share, making the Dunning’s original holding whole again, sort of. Hunt was a farmer. However, a city directory shows him living in Cundy’s Harbor in 1914 and 1917. He and his family were gone by 1920, farming in Claiborne, Mississippi. Hunt kept his share, though, selling it to Chester Holbrook in 1925, dividing the ownership yet again. Harris kept his until his death in 1950. He and his family lived in Cundy’s Harbor where he was postmaster and ran a general store in the early 1900s. In fact, he ran one of three competing general stores in Cundy’s Harbor. The 1908-09 edition of the Casco Bay Directory printed ads for Watson Brothers’, Edward W. Holbrook’s, and A.J. Harris’ stores. By 1920, he and his family lived and prospered as lobster merchants in South Portland.

Heirs of both Harris and Hunt combined forces in a 1971 subdivision. By then, the town of Harpswell had committed to bridging Ewing Narrows to connect the Neck and Sebascodegan Island. That required building Mountain Road to access the bridge from the east. “We didn’t even have a path where the road would have to go,” said Malcolm Widden, Selectman in 1966. Mountain Road cleaved the 35.5 acre property, with the subdivision lying south of Mountain Road.

I return to the question, without living on the land, why did the landowners keep their Strawberry Creek property? What tangible or intangible things did they provide? Families kept the property or shares of the property for decades. What did they use the land for?

One possibility is that of the land as an investment, a way to bank financial resources. The right of dower suggests that, but in the 19th century, the static land prices suggest it did not make owners wealthy.

Another possibility is for the wood. Estate tax documents dated from 1968 from Edith Harris, Abner’s widow, refer to “the woodlot.” Needing a source of wood makes sense; homes were built and heated with wood, boats used to get around the town were built from wood, food was cooked with wood, and strawberries were preserved using wood. A woodlot would have been invaluable for home use and potentially for market.

Perhaps land owners clammed the mudflats at the mouth of the creek and harvested whatever tasty and marketable foods they could gather there. The intertidal zone was formally conveyed with the adjacent uplands in the 1971 deeds.

Intertidal zones are habitat for quahogs, soft-shell clams, European oysters, and blue mussels, the latter being the favorite food of eiders. (Were eiders a favorite food of Harpswellians?) Rockweed beds flanking the shore shelter or feed shellfish, crustaceans, and hungry foraging fish. At the highest part of the intertidal zone, seaside salt hay grass grows. In the 1800s it would have been used to feed or bed livestock.

Using the natural resources of Sebascodegan Island was nothing settlers of European descent invented. It would be hard to imagine that Native Americans didn’t hunt, clam, shuck oysters, fish and cut bait, gather wood, and pick delectable berries at Strawberry Creek.

Preserving this land would protect many of those same resources into the future.

I can picture Wyer, Dunning, and Toothaker sons and daughters picnicking at Strawberry Creek on warm summer afternoons, swimming in water warmed by hot mudflats, picking strawberries, and digging clams. I can see them in the fall camping and hunting deer and ducks. Perhaps those who have “owned” or used the land loved it simply for its beautiful setting, which calmed their spirits as they communed with nature.

Click here for details on the Strawberry Creek Project.


*Cumberland County deed, book 254, page 456.

**Wheeler, George Augustus and Wheeler, Henry Warren. 1878. History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine. Alfred Mudge & Sons. 1974 Reproduction by New Hampshire Publishing Company—Somersworth. P. 44.

*** Whidden, Malcolm. “Connecting the Great Divide: Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of the Ewing Narrows Bridge: The Long Reach Mountain Road and Ewing Narrows Bridge.” Harpswell Anchor. Captured September 29 2020. https://masonjars.com/history-of-ball-jars.html. (Search for “Whidden Ewing Narrows Anchor.”)

Preserving instructions from Sarah Tyson Rorer, 1887. Canning and Preserving. Philadelphia: Arnold and Company. p. 9, 10, 19, 28. (Found via Google Books. Search for Google Books, then search for “Preserving and Canning Rorer.”)

History of Mason jars from “A Brief History of the Mason Jar.” Smithsonian Magazine. Captured 29 September 2020. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/brief-history-mason-jar-180975546/. (Search for “Mason jar history Smithsonian.”)

“History of Ball Mason Jars.” Mason Jars Maker Place. Captured 29 September 2020. https://masonjars.com/history-of-ball-jars.html. (Search for “History Ball Mason.”)

Advertisements for stores in 1908 – 09 Casco Bay Directory. Portland: Crowley and Lunt Publishers. Pages 74 and 76. (Found via Google Books. Search for Google Books, then search for “1908 Casco Bay Directory.”)

Map of Cumberland County, Maine. 1857. J. Chace, Publisher. Osher Map Library. Captured 2 October 2020. https://oshermaps.org/browse-maps?id=11936 (Search for “Osher Map Library” and then for “Cumberland County, Maine 1857.”)

Map of Cumberland County, Maine. 1871. Brunswick and Topsham in the Cumberland County Atlas. 1871. Digital Maine Repository. Captured 2 October 2020. https://digitalmaine.com/atlas_cumberland_1871/47/. (Search for “Digital Maine Atlas 1871 Cumberland” and then for “Brunswick and Topsham.”)