History, Ecology, and the Power of Place
Picture it: a tidal cove flanked by salt marshes, exposed mud flats at low tide, and osprey hunting when the tide is high. A place where horseshoe crabs spawn in May and June, where ferns and trout lilies carpet the woodland floor, and evergreens lean and spire toward sunlight. Breathe the mixed scent of pine and sea, a haunting fog, sun crackling on winter’s first snowfall. Picture it, and then go there.
Skolfield Shores Preserve, right at the gateway to Harpswell Neck, has become a well-loved system of trails and preserved wildlife habitat that almost wasn’t. In 1999, 24 acres along Upper Middle Bay were purchased by a developer who planned to divide the land into eight house lots. To build would have required clearing of the woodland behind Merrucoonegan Farm and its nineteenth century farmhouse. Road construction would have divided the property.
Now picture houses, roads, no trespassing signs, less access to the shore for livelihood or recreation. Add to that the less visible impacts of development: erosion, nitrogen-rich runoff into Middle Bay that increases the likelihood of algal blooms, loss of healthy forest habitat and wildlife corridors, and greater consumption of groundwater – one of Harpswell’s more limited natural resources.
In 2001, HHLT opened negotiations to purchase and preserve 19 of the 24 acres that were slated for development. At the same time, home construction was also planned for the 3.5-acre field at the head of Bailey Island’s Mackerel Cove. Knowing that building in these places would permanently change the rural and coastal character of Harpswell and further limit public access, HHLT launched a Special Places for Harpswell Campaign, ultimately raising the $1.6 million required to purchase and preserve both properties.
Skolfield Shores Preserve comprises a trail system that winds through coastal woodlands and along the rocky shore. It protects more than 4,000 feet of shoreline on Middle Bay Cove. The woodland along this shoreline absorbs and filters rain and stormwater that would otherwise wash sediments and excess nutrients into the cove. Along with the adjacent fields and salt marshes, it provides essential wildlife habitat. The trail system gives the public access for recreation, shellfish harvesting, and hunting.
Stunning view and public shoreline access aside, there is history on this land that has shaped the nature of the entire town. The farm’s name, Merrucoonegan, is an Abenaki word indicating a place of swift or easy portage, inferring a summer encampment of native peoples that long predated settlement and colonization. Keeping Skolfield Shores wild preserves some of that history and reminds us that colonial settlers were not the first ones to have a relationship with this land. It’s the beginning of honoring native peoples’ presence and stewardship of this place.
Merrucoonegan Farm was settled by the Skolfield family. Thomas Skolfield emigrated from Ireland to Boston in 1725, and in 1739 he purchased 200 acres of land in Brunswick on upper Harpswell Neck. During the wooden ship-building era of the early to mid 1800’s, the Skolfields ran a shipyard across the road from what is now Merrucoonegan Farm’s orchard. Once construction of a ship was complete, often a member of the family would captain it for a while before eventually selling the vessel and building a new one. When they returned, space was found or constructed for them at the house, which is now considered by the Society of Architectural Historians to be one of the most well-preserved examples of connected farm buildings in New England.
By the end of the 1880’s the wooden ship-building trade had begun to fade, but the agricultural age was reaching its height in Maine. While there had been farming on the Skolfield land since they settled there, it became a primary focus when ship building declined. In 1897, the dairy barn was constructed. The apple orchard followed after World War I and remains productive today.
While the farm itself is privately owned, the owners have made essential contributions to the conservation of the land. A right-of-way was established to allow the public to park and access the trail system on the preserved acreage. Without the generosity and cooperation of these families, the sweeping views of shoreland forests and fields might look and be very different. This is a gift worth minding and appreciating each time we pass by or walk the trails. Please stay on the marked trails and park only in the designated lot. Dogs are not allowed at this preserve as there is livestock on this working farm. The fields are part of the farm, not the preserve. Admire them, but please don’t trespass.
The main trail system includes the Hemlock Loop and the Merrucoonegan Loop. For a total of one mile, these loops wind through varied forest habitat and provide views of the cove, the salt marsh separating Brunswick and Harpswell, and the fields of Merrucoonegan Farm. A spur trail leads to a turn of the century boathouse along the shore. In 2015, HHLT added the 0.2 mile Liberty Farm trail to the preserve, just south of the Skolfield Shores parking lot. The Liberty Farm trail provides quick access to the water. Parking is at a pull-off on the east side of Harpswell Neck Road.
When you visit Skolfield Shores Preserve, pause to consider the centuries of change this land has endured. What could have become another housing development with limited public access to the water is instead preserved as natural habitat that helps maintain water quality in Middle Bay Cove, supports local wildlife, and remains a living example of history, ecology, and the power of place.