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Otter Brook: Past, Present and Future
It is always interesting to understand the history of a piece of property – who owned the land back in time, and how their interactions with the land shaped the property we can see today. In the case of the two parcels involved with Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s (HHLT) Otter Brook Project, there are intersecting histories that take us back to a long ago Harpswell.
Former selectman Sam Alexander has a fine mind for history, and was kind enough to share some of the story of his land. In the early 1800’s, his ancestors lived at what is now Two Coves Farm at Neil’s Point. In 1840, Isaac Alexander decided to move his family, and his house, to their current location north of Mountain Road. At that time, the Alexander property spanned the Neck from Middle Bay to Ewing Narrows, on Harpswell Sound. Much of the land in the valley around Otter Brook was open pasture for raising animals.
On the northern edge of the Alexander property there was a causeway across the marsh. This was built in the early 1800’s to allow passage of carts and wagons from one side of the Neck to the other. When the Hildreth House Hotel opened in 1907 on the shore of Ewing Narrows, the causeway was useful for moving passengers, mail and freight across the valley, to and from the steamship landing by the hotel. Sam guessed that his great grandfather’s twin brother, James Alexander, made use of the causeway to get to his job at Hildreth House.
The other parcel in the Otter Brook project lies to the north of the Alexander acreage. This is currently owned by Keith Brown and the Potholm family. Keith told me that their acreage was owned in the early 1940’s by a Dr. Wilson.
Dr. Wilson’s land was sold under the administration of Judge Leon Spinney, and the 100 acre parcel went for the huge sum of $800. It included land from the current Route 123 to the Ewing Narrows shore. Keith believes the property was owned for some years by the Smith family, with some parcels being sold off for home sites. About 20 acres was acquired in the late 1960’s by the Parker family.
Keith and Sam remember going to Otter Brook pond as young boys for ice skating and ice hockey parties. Neither of them remember swimming in the pond, perhaps Sam said, because the bottom was soft mud and there were eels in the water. Things changed in 1954 when a hurricane dropped so much rain on Harpswell that the dam holding back the waters of Otter Brook pond was washed out, and a new, lower outlet was formed to Harpswell Cove.
According to Sam, in 1957-8, local men performed some masonry work to dam up the stream once again, and to install a sluiceway to Harpswell Cove. Once again, skating was back on the agenda for local kids. A couple years later, the old causeway was dynamited by the state to deal with repeated problems with flooding caused by the energetic local beavers. Around that time, Sam recalls that his father, Samuel P. Alexander and his friend Clement Dunning, had occasion to cut down a huge maple tree on the property. Clement, known to stretch the truth a mite, claimed they got six full cords of wood out of the tree. Sam’s father, a bit more judicious in his claims, allowed that they got something over five cords, still one heck of a tree!
Keith and the Potholms purchased their land in 1979. Soon after, they put in some hard labor to build a larger berm for the pond, trying to increase the depth and expanse for recreational purposes. Keith estimates the southern end of the pond today is about four feet deep, near the current spillway it is about 12 feet. Keith recalled that then neighbor Dick Morgan put over 500 trout in the pond, hoping for a little fishing hole. But the local cormorants co-opted the fishing hole for themselves and soon cleaned out the trout.
Both men recall seeing a variety of wildlife on their lands over the years. In the early days, as the old pastures were abandoned and reverted to forest, there were a lot of deer and occasionally moose, attracted by the new browse. Keith recalled planting 250 Christmas trees on the east side of Otter Brook, with the surviving trees now providing valuable cover for song birds and small mammals. Reclusive fishers roam the land, and in more recent years, a growing local population of coyotes has found useful hunting along the stream and marshes.
There are some trails and bridges on the Brown/Potholm property today that probably total half a mile in length. The Alexander property was logged a couple years back, so the skidder trails may assist in extending the trail network. HHLT Executive Director Reed Coles says the combined properties might support one and a half miles of trails when completed.
The Otter Brook Project will offer many recreational opportunities for local residents and visitors. Besides hiking, the trail network will allow cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter. Folks who enjoy birding and wildlife viewing will find a range of habitat on offer to observe and photograph their favorite species. And before too long, Otter Brook pond may ring with the sounds of happy children, and a few brave parents, taking a turn on those new ice skates from Santa!