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A History of Skolfield Shores Preserve

Harpswell Heritage Land Trust
November 9, 2017

The boat house at Skolfield Shores Preserve (Elsa Martz photo)

Look around you at Skolfield Shores Preserve and consider all the history that has occurred at this site over the centuries.

For 10,000 years this place has been a stopping place for Native Americans along their travel route from the forest, down the rivers and along the shore to Cape Cod. To travel from inland locations to Casco Bay, they carried their canoes through the marsh water at high tide. The name, Merrucoonegan, comes from a Native American word for “easy carry” or “drag your canoe across.” The historic carrying place crosses Route 123 north of this preserve. Native Americans fished and gathered shellfish, sweetgrass for basket making and other foods and medicines.

Timber was harvested here for the British. Any straight tree with a diameter over 24 inches was cut as tax for the British and became known as “masts for the King.” Sawmills were commonly seen on these shores.

By the 1700s, firewood was in short supply in Boston. Tom Skolfield, a new immigrant from Ireland, was employed as a teacher in Boston. In the summer he came to Birch Island to harvest cordwood to bring back to Boston for heating. By 1739, Tom and his wife, Mary Orr, had bought property here, once from the proprietors and once from the Native Americans, and were farming 200 acres just north of the carrying place.

One of Tom’s sons, Clement, built the house at Liberty Farm. Clement and his brothers later built the first shipyard on the creek across Route 123 from this spot. Their first ship was launched in 1799. It was 76 feet long, 131 tons and named the Fortune.

Two of Clement’s sons, “Master” George and Sam, built the farm house at Merrucoonegan Farm. They also continued the family shipbuilding business. By the 1800s, vessels from the Skolfield Shipyard became well known for quality. The square-riggers, schooners and sloops were built with local white pine for the masts and white oak for the ribs. As many as 100 men worked here as carpenters, painters and caulkers. Launch day would be during one of the highest tides of the year, to enable them to build ships as long as 232 feet.

The Skolfield family built the ships, owned them and sailed them around the world with cargo. “Master” George had four sons – three of whom were ship’s captains and one of whom stayed home to manage the shipyard. Sometimes the ships and their sailors were lost at sea, and in one year they lost one third of their family members. The ships carried cotton, fish, wood and apples to Europe and returned with wine, iron and new immigrants hoping to make their way in America. They brought sugar from the West Indies and hides, jute and tea from Asia.

Between 1800 and 1885, 100 ships were built here. But in the second half of the 19th century, wooden ships began to lose business to iron and steel ships, as well as to rail. The Skolfield family sold their last ships in the early 1900s.

By the 1900s, farming again returned to the Skolfield land. Daniel T. Skolfield, grandson of “Master” George, raised dairy and beef cows with his son, who was also named George. They planted the current apple orchard after World War I. They grew hay, corn, strawberries, apples, potatoes, grains and turnips. Part of the land has continued as a farm until the present.

The original boat house along the shore at Skolfield Shores Preserve was built around 1911 to store a prized boat, the Iris, but both the house and the boat floated away up the bay to Pennellville during a big storm in the 1970s. The boat house was rebuilt using the same design, but the Iris, which was a poorly designed sailboat, was not replaced.