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Curtis Farm Preserve: A braided history

One of a series of articles exploring the natural and human history of Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s protected land. With each of these articles comes a public event. On Jan. 31 you are invited to a Full Moon Snowshoe at Curtis Farm Preserve. Click here for details.

By Nancy West

Flossie at Curtis Farm Preserve (Nancy West photo)

When we began walking Flossie, our newly adopted dog, on Harpswell Heritage Land Trust’s (HHLT) Curtis Farm Preserve, I wondered who the Curtises were and what they grew. By diving into public records online, I now know some of their interesting history. On the farm in 1850, Peleg Curtis and his family grew six bushels of wheat, 80 of Indian corn, seven of peas and beans, 200 of Irish potatoes, and 25 tons of hay. His livestock, the workhorses so to speak, were one horse, four milch cows, four working oxen, five other cattle, 20 sheep, and two swine. They yielded 300 pounds of butter and 40 pounds of wool.

While the Preserve is now 86 acres, Peleg’s family farmed 140 improved acres. They also owned 25 unimproved acres. When George W. Curtis, Peleg’s younger brother and the last Curtis to farm there, died in 1912, his estate included “the homestead” (80 acres west of Route 123) and “the lower farm” (55 acres east of the road). When you enjoy today’s Preserve, you’re relaxing on the Curtis homestead, where three generations of Curtises worked their farm, hard.

An 1871 map of the southern end of Harpswell neck. Curtis Farm Preserve is marked with the yellow star.

Unraveling the history of the Curtis family and their land took me down three braided paths. The first was through the deeds, which showed me who owned the land back in time to George W. Curtis. That was a name I could drop into Ancestry.com and trace the family further back through census reports, the second path. This in turn led me to the agricultural data. Maps from 1742, 1743, 1851 and 1871 were the third path, for they married people names with place names.

What I have learned is that David and Bethea Curtis arrived in Harpswell in the mid-1700’s from Hanover, Massachusetts with their children. David and his sons bought and sold land at High Head, Widgeon and Wilson Coves, Lookout Point, Birch Island, Upper Goose Island, Eagle Island (George W. sold it to Admiral Peary), and at the south end of Harpswell Neck. Deeds and maps refer to land on “the Prongs,” near Ash Cove, and at “The Bacon,” today’s Basin. Two of David and Bethea’s sons, Paul R. and Michael, bought what I think is today’s Curtis Farm Preserve in 1769. Paul’s son was Peleg, and his sons included Peleg and George W.

The Curtises bought and sold land prodigiously within their family and with Stovers, Webbers, Bibbers, Pinkhams, Toothakers, Merymans, and Merrimans. And some of those were also related by marriage to Curtises. The deeds are fascinating and hilarious with their archaic language and obscure descriptions of parcels of land. An example: “…southeasterly and southwesterly by land of the heirs of Mr. Daniel Randall deceased and Northwesterly by the Bason shore & Creek being the same that Capt Johnson Stover late of Harpswell deceased owned at the time of his death…”

I also discovered that these people were my cousins! Since I grew up on an island in Puget Sound, this was astonishing and delightful news. Bethea Curtis began life as Bethea Sprague, and my great grandmother was a Sprague. Bethea was my second cousin many times removed. She and her family are buried in the Old Harpswell Common Burying Ground. I said hello to them under their thick blanket of very cold snow when I learned of our connection.

My search to learn about the farm has been tremendous fun, and of course, has led to other questions. For instance, when did David Curtis begin buying land here? Who was Peter of the Peters Cove on old maps and deeds, now Curtis Cove? What purpose did the stone walls serve? Do the roughly rectangular areas of deciduous trees visible on Google Earth represent old fields? When digging into historical records, I’ve been seduced into digital rabbit holes. Fortunately, walks on HHLT preserves like the Curtis Farm Preserve provide a natural antidote to a digital hangover. When summer comes, we will walk through the Curtis homestead to wade in Curtis Cove, where Flossie will bite waves. We will stop again en route to read headstones and connect with my cousins, who were Harpswell boatbuilders, selectmen, fighters in the Revolution and War of 1812, sailors, land wheelers and dealers, and farmers.

Click here for more information about Curtis Farm Preserve, including directions and a trail map.

Curtis Farm Preserve (Nancy West photo)

Note: You can do the same sort of exploration with your family and the land you love from the comfort of home and the Curtis Library. The library subscribes to Ancestry.com, from which you can read census reports and Agricultural Schedules of the U.S., Selected Federal Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880. You can view deeds online at the Cumberland County Registry of Deeds. They go back as far as the 1750’s. Older deeds are available at the York County Registry of Deeds. The maps came from the Maine Memory network and other sites:

1742: www.mainememory.net/artifact/11743
1743: www.mainememory.net/artifact/5343
1857: www.oshermaps.org/browse-maps?id=11936
1871: www.historicmapworks.com

Nancy West recently moved to Harpswell from Colorado with her husband. She became involved in the crucial work of local land trusts by volunteering there, where mountains rise above rangeland. Now she volunteers for Harpswell Heritage Land Trust. You can reach her at nancywwest@gmail.com.

January 2018