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Little Ponds: Agriculture, industry, literature, nature

This is one in a series of articles exploring the history of HHLT preserves.

Little Ponds is the wild Maine blueberry of preserves. Its 22 acres in East Harpswell burst with goodness in the realms of nature; historical agriculture, fisheries, and industry; and literature. Yes, even literature.

Fungus and woodpecker holes (Nancy West photo)

Several Great Island family names tie into the Little Ponds Preserve, now owned by Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT). Susan N. Pulsifer bought the land in 1929. Susan and her husband, Harold, were writers: Susan wrote a dozen books. Harold published a magazine and, as a poet, was a finalist for the 1938 Pulitzer prize. They named their new place “Little Ponds” for two freshwater ponds next to a tidal mill pond. Susan later intended for the property to become a wildlife sanctuary in memory of Harold and neighbor Sheldon Ware, both keenly interested in birds. Her grandsons (Coleman, David, Keith and Morgan Pulsifer) made it happen and now, ninety years after her purchase, we can all enjoy her restful, living, and breathing land and water.

Walking the Preserve’s quarter-mile trail steps you out of a 21st century life. It wends through fern meadows, past trees festooned with fungus, past other trees with deep holes pecked by pileated woodpeckers, to a cattail marsh, the “Tiemer Pond.” There, in the spring, you’ll hear red-winged blackbirds singing their hearts out wooing a mate. The trail is a perfect starter trail for families with small children: Kids might wonder why a mussel shell lies in the trail. What creature put it there? Adults, especially without inquisitive children along, will find internal stillness.

Lush summer cattail marsh (Nancy West photo)

While the trail features forest and marsh, the Preserve includes a mill pond on which I’ve seen a great blue heron fishing four feet from a snowy egret as the falling tide exposed mudflats. At higher tides, kingfishers call and fly out from their perches.

The mill pond is mentioned in many of the deeds documenting property sales of the mid-19th century among the Coombs family. Samuel and Priscilla Coombs had twelve children, six girls and six boys. Samuel and his sons Joseph, James, William, Isaac, John, and Harmon bought and sold properties in the area dozens of times, often amongst themselves. In 1859, Joseph, James, and William Coombs collectively bought property with a boundary at the “head of [the] Mill Pond” with reference to “the Mill buildings.” The previous owner had purchased it from Robert P. Ridley in 1858; Ridleys had farmed it for decades and operated the mill. In 1850, Robert Ridley grew 12 bushels of corn, 25 of oats, five of peas and beans, 100 of potatoes and had 25 livestock. He and his neighbors collectively grew 131 bushels of wheat and 1,026 of corn—grist for the mill.

Unaccountably to my mind, in 1858 Ridley sold his farm in Harpswell to move to Emmet, Iowa where he was a farmer and miller. The Ridley-Coombs connection was deep: as a young man, Harmon Coombs and his wife, Emma, lived with his in-laws, Isaac and Chilloa Ridley. Isaac was Robert’s brother.

The Coombs family farmed at Little Ponds for at least 60 years. Samuel raised 75 sheep there in 1870 and 60 in 1880. With his sheep, oxen, milch cows and other cattle needing water, was he the one who dammed a stream at the west end of the Preserve? Or, as Reed Coles, HHLT Executive Director suggested, was it an ice pond? (He recalled skating on it as a boy). After all, in the 1880 census, William Coombs was a Brunswick ice dealer. For whichever purpose the pond was created, an 1872 deed places a “bolt … near the dike.” If “dike” equals “dam” (as in Hans Brinker plugging a hole with his finger), the dam and freshwater pond were created by 1872.

Lily pond with horned grebe (underwater!). (Nancy West photo)

Today the pond features water lilies. And, on the day I kayaked to its western end on Fish House Cove, it hosted a horned grebe. Peering over the dam, I felt like Mary Lennox opening the hidden gate into The Secret Garden.

Harmon Coombs and his brother, John owned a “pogy factory” in the 1880’s. Knowing that, the name “Fish House Cove” makes sense. The factory, Fish House Cove, and the mill pond were all referenced in an 1889 deed conveying land from Isaac and Harmon to John. Pogie factories processed fish into fish oil, with the residue becoming compost.

Harmon and John farmed there into the 1920’s, when literature came into Little Ponds’ picture. Harmon sold land to Elbert Brackett (1921) who sold it to Susan Pulsifer in 1929. Harmon also sold land to Carrie Tiemer in 1920, hence “Tiemer Pond.”

Cundy’s Harbor School in the 1920’s. Photo provided by the Cundy’s Harbor Library.

Carrie’s daughter, Gertrude, was an artist and poet of stature who bought a home, “Gabriel,” on Dingley Island in 1934. (You can see Gabriel blowing his horn on a mailbox and as a weathervane). Her poetry was published in, among other places, a 1955 Down East magazine’s tribute to Robert P. Tristram Coffin—a native Harpswellian and 1936 Pulitzer Prize winner in poetry. Additionally, Edna St. Vincent Millay, who acquired Ragged Island in 1933, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923. I like to imagine these four writers converging for a poetry reading in the Cundy’s Harbor schoolhouse in 1936….