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The Stone Barn Farm: An Overview of its Cultural and Natural History

September 15, 2010

By Tim Garrity, Historian, Mount Desert Island Historical Society

The Geologic Era

The Stone Barn stands on ground molded and carved more than 10,000 years ago by a massive glacier that descended from the northwest. It is hard to imagine the enormity of this frozen force, a mile-high expanse of ice so heavy that it pressed the earth down into the sea, so powerful that it pushed and ground the rock in its path like a giant snowplow. At the glacier’s forward edge, a mound of gravel piled up to form a ridge of land, a glacial moraine.

As the climate warmed and the glacier receded, the submerged moraine was left below sea level and marine sediments settled over it, leaving a thick layer of silt and clay that would one day serve as an ideal soil for farming. The Stone Barn sits atop this moraine in the valley of Northeast Creek, a place of enormous bounty for many generations of humans who have lived there, beginning with the Wabanaki people.[1]  

Pre-European Era

According to Penobscot Tribal Ambassador Maulian Dana, “Our ties to this land existed long before America was dreamed of. The artifacts, oral tradition, legends, and historical records all point to thousands of years of Wabanaki being here in our homeland.”[2] In the forest, fields, and wetlands by the Northeast Creek headwaters, Native Americans would hunt large game like moose, deer, bear, and aquatic mammals like muskrat, beaver, and otter.

Such species provided not only food but furs for clothing. In the marshes and along the creek, they would find waterfowl and their eggs, and fish. At the creek’s outlet, clams, mussels, and seabirds were plentiful. In Frenchman Bay and beyond, seals and many species of fish were present in abundance that seems unimaginable after centuries of depletion.[3]

Paine Farm pre-1907 

The Nineteenth Century

MDI’s Agricultural “Emery District”

The Emery District was a cluster of six farms that surrounded the headwaters of Northeast Creek. According to farming historian Todd Little-Siebold, the area encompassed about 1,000 acres of farmland divided among six farms. In the 1860 census, the heads of household were listed as Jared Emery, Joel Emery, Theodore Paine, Richard Paine, and Sally Emery. Joel Emery held the largest plot (610 acres) and Richard Paine the smallest (45 acres).

Animals were the primary cash crop of the Emery District, constituting from 25 percent to 50 percent of the value of the farms. “All of the farmers,” Siebold writes, “had a milk cow or three, an oxen or two, and a horse.” In the plowed fields, farmers of the Emery district grew hay to feed the animals. They sold wood from their forested land and they tended 90 apple trees.

Only about five percent of the total land in the Emery District was actively farmed. The rest was left in a forested state. While a farm family could feed themselves with what they grew, they needed supplemental income to provide more than mere sustenance.

The young men of the family typically worked off the farm as carpenters, laborers, or in maritime trades to bring home additional income.[4] The wages and enlistment bonuses associated with service in the Civil War, in addition to patriotic fervor, helped induce many young men to join the army.

After the Civil War, the small-scale farms of the Emery District began to decline as better farmlands in the Midwest and West opened up and railroads brought their produce back to New England. In the twentieth century, farmers turned to dairy and the market gardening to supply the demands of the growing summer colony.

The pond and fields behind the farmhouse, 2020

The Salisbury Family

An 1807 map suggests that Eben Salisbury was the first to own, in the Euro-American sense, the plot of land where the Stone Barn now stands.[5] From the sparse information provided in the 1810 census we can guess that Salisbury lived there with his wife and two children, a boy and a girl. But we have no evidence of how he may have used the plot or when it was conveyed to Thomas Paine, Jr. who, along with his descendants, owned the farm until 1907.

The Paine Family

Thomas Jr. was the first of the Paine family to be born on Mount Desert Island, in 1793, three years before Eden (now Bar Harbor) was established as a town. In 1819, Thomas married 18-year-old Olive Hadley and in their marriage of more than 40 years they had 12 children, of whom seven are known to have survived childhood.[6]

Thomas Paine may have built the first barn and the present house on the site around 1840, as local tradition attests, or a son built it between 1850 and 1860, as the Maine Historic Preservation Commission supposed. A late nineteenth-century photograph shows a two-story house, some connecting buildings, and a wooden barn. Though the house still stands, the connecting buildings and the barn have been replaced by the Stone Barn and a carriage house.  The carriage house is designed for vehicles that don’t back up so easily. Front and rear doors allow horse or ox-drawn wagon to enter one door and exit through the other. 

Thomas and Olive’s fifth child, Richard H. Paine, was born on July 14, 1828. Ownership of the farm transferred from Thomas to Richard sometime between 1850 and 1860, perhaps in 1857 when Richard married 21-year-old Sophia Emery, one of many members of an extended family that gave the “Emery District” its name.

After war broke out in April, 1861, Richard enlisted in Company E of the Twenty-Sixth Maine Regiment on October 11, 1862, committing to a nine-month term of service. His enlistment documents give us the only description we have of his appearance, noting that he was 34 years old and five feet eight inches tall with blue eyes.

The Union army typically recruited men from the same region to serve together in a company of about 100 men, a practice that stopped when high casualty rates in battle concentrated the loss of men from a single community. The Twenty-Sixth Maine Regiment was made up of ten companies of about 100 men each. In Company E, everyone was from eastern Maine and 28 men were from Mount Desert Island, many of them Richard’s immediate neighbors from the Emery district.[7]

When Richard went to the war, Sophia stayed on the farm during the winter and spring of 1862-3 with three-year-old Edgar and one-year-old Willis. Sophia was pregnant with another child, Maynard, who would be born in March 1863, while Richard was away. Sophia was left to manage a farm that produced a small crop of potatoes, 100 pounds of butter, and five tons of hay. In addition to her children, she had in her care two cows, two oxen, eight sheep, and a pig.[8] Even if she had the help of her mother and father-in-law, it is certain that both Richard and Sophia had each their own kind of suffering during the Civil War.

The Twenty-Sixth Maine was sent to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where it took part in the Union effort to wrest control of the Mississippi from the Confederacy. The men were plagued by diseases associated with swamps and poor sanitation, and several were wounded at a place called Irish Bend, by the Atchafalaya River. One of Richard’s comrades from Mount Desert wrote home with complaints about short pay, poor food (“boef with magets,”) chronic illness, and a regimental physician who was “drunk all the time.”[9] Richard was sick and unfit for duty for most of his time in the service. He was discharged from the Army in August 1863 and returned home, where another hardship soon followed. Sophia died in October 1864 at age 28.[10]

Richard pressed on, farming and marrying again, outliving three more wives. In 1867, at the age of 39, he married 30-year-old Mary A., and they were together 17 years until her death in 1884. Later that same year, when he was 56, he married 40-year-old Phebe A., and the marriage lasted eight years until she died in 1892. On September 2, 1894, at the age of 66, he married 53-year-old Julia E. Gott, who lived until 1908.[11] The farmhouse is equipped with a funeral door in the parlor, a grim practicality for such an age as the Paine family endured.

A regimental history published in 1899 reported that Richard was now a “policeman, carpenter, and stonemason.”[12] By that time he had turned over the farm responsibilities his to son, Willis, who sold the farm to James and Charles Shea in 1907. Richard died at the veterans’ home in Augusta in 1913 at the age of 84. 

Images of the Shea Farm in winter

The Early Twentieth Century and the Great Depression

The Shea Family

The Shea brothers were prominent masonry contractors whose long-lasting work is evident throughout Mount Desert Island. In the same year that they purchased the farm, they were contracted to build the foundation for a greenhouse at The Turrets, today a prominent landmark at College of the Atlantic, and they provided the stonework to Bar Harbor High School, now the town hall.

The Sheas built the Stone Barn as a way to showcase their prowess as masons. It is unusual for a Maine barn to be constructed with such a significant amount of stonework. According to the application for the National Register of Historic Places, “the stone barn’s first story is constructed of glacial stone with granite sills and lintels, the whole of which is covered by an expansive gambrel roof with wood shingled frame end walls. Although it is not positively known why the Shea Brothers constructed a barn of stone, if nothing else it demonstrated their skill in building in such a material.”[13]

The Sheas rented out the farmhouse to various families for long-term rentals and used the farm for the production of milk and for breeding prize Ayrshire cattle, including big bulls with names like Wilson, Kebo, and Dandy of Eden, and cows they called Merridale, Rhoda, and Eden’s Pride.

In the 1930s, Frank Gray was a young boy whose family rented the Shea farmhouse. He recalls a frightening memory of his childhood, a cold Thanksgiving day when two of his friends were skating on the frozen Northeast Creek. As the Bar Harbor Times reported, “Charles Watson, 11 and Milton Leach, 10… were the victims of a near tragedy … while skating on Shea’s meadow. The ice broke and threw both boys into the pond in about six feet of water. The cries of the youngsters attracted the attention of Mr. Watson who rushed to the scene and dived into the water to rescue them.”[14]

Frank recalls, “Oh yeah, I can see them now, standing in the washtub by the kitchen stove, undressing them. Milton was in the water longest and they got him up on top of Warren Haslam’s shoulder and he was right stiff. Warren had a heck of a job trying to hang on to him because he was so stiff, but when he tried to run with him, he just all relaxed and the water run out of his mouth. That must have been what artificial respiration would have done for him, for Warren to run with him. In my estimation, he probably would have died if he hadn’t.”[15]

Frank Gray around age 10

The Owen Family

In 1963, Harry and Cindy Owen purchased the Stone Barn Farm. While living at the farm, Harry worked as a teacher and farmed vegetables in the summer. Cindy was a registered nurse. They grew lettuce, sweet corn, snap beans, carrots, and strawberries. They raised goats and chickens to produce milk, cheese, and eggs.

In time, the place became known for its picturesque beauty. The Owen’s sunflowers attracted a great deal of attention. The farm became the site of fashion shoots and weddings. A German tourist sent a postcard addressed to the “Gentleman who grows beautiful sunflowers near the grey stone barn, Crooked Road, Bar Harbor, Maine.” The card was delivered with no problem at all.

Harry and Cindy became alarmed at the rapid rate of development on Mount Desert Island. In a survey distributed by the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT), he wrote, “I feel that development on MDI is a disaster – within the next ten years every available field and wood and lot will be subdivided for houses. The whole character of the Island will be changed – MDI will become suburbia.”

Zoning ordinances in Bar Harbor at the time would have allowed the division of the Owen’s land into 42 house lots, a massive development that would yield large profits at the expense of the environment and public welfare. Harry and Cindy Owen placed the property under a conservation easement, protecting it permanently from further development. 

The Owens also applied for the house, the carriage shed, and the barn to be placed on the national register of historic places. Cindy Owen said, “It’s our way of giving back to our friends and our community for all the happy times we’ve had here.”[16] Cindy died in 2018. Harry has lived to see the transfer of property ownership to Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a state-wide land conservation organization. Through the generosity of donors, in 2019, MCHT acquired the property to manage as a public preserve.

The Stone Barn Farm Today (2020)

Many elements of the Stone Barn Farm’s history can be seen by walking through the property.[17] One can make the immediate observation that the farm is still a farm, having escaped the fate of coastal farms that were early consumed by development.

The Stone Barn Farm survived the pressure of development because the farmland was productive enough to survive the economic pressures of the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century, when the opening of railroads from the west’s rich agricultural lands caused economic hardships for New England farms. Then, during the second half of the twentieth century and the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the Stone Barn Farm had protectors like Harry and Cindy Owen working with Maine Coast Heritage Trust to stave off developers.

A view of the Stone Barn Farm and some of the surrounding land that makes up the Emery District

Standing near the cluster of buildings, one can see on the opposite side of the road intersection the freshwater wetlands called “The Barcelona.”[18] The “winter hay” grown in this marsh, in addition to the natural grasses of the salt marsh downstream, sustained farm animals in the cold months, providing a natural supply of fodder to supplement the hay grown in the farm fields and harvested in August. In the late eighteenth century, such marshlands were often held in common, its produce divided and shared by many farmers in the area.

Rows of pines planted over a field in the late 20th century

Turning to the buildings, one can see the farmhouse, dated from 1840 to 1860, the carriage house, dating from the late nineteenth century, and the Stone Barn, constructed in 1907. The Stone Barn was made for dairy cows, and is evidence of the transition of New England farming from polyculture (the production of wool, wheat, meats, and vegetables) to monoculture (the production of just dairy products, with fields turned almost entirely to growing hay to feed cows).

The fields beyond the buildings were once far more extensive than those we can see today. The forest of trees visible at the western edges of the fields are of mostly uniform species and height, indicating they were planted at the same time, perhaps in the late twentieth century as a result of government incentives to take fields out of production and promote the growth of trees. Many of the pines were planted in perfect rows, leaving corridors through the forest, though there is an occasional “Wolf Pine” or oak with spreading limbs low to the ground, evidence of a tree that grew up in an open field but is now surrounded by younger trees.

Conclusion

The Stone Barn Farm property reveals a landscape that bears the marks of change. Massive geologic forces shaped it and imbued it with qualities that made it productive of food. The Paine family in the nineteenth century worked and struggled in the face of many hardships to sustain their loved ones. The Shea brothers used the farm to supplement their incomes as masons and left an architectural landmark for the esthetic pleasure of future generations.

Harry and Cindy Owen saw the threat of over-development as if it was a new glacier, looming over the island and threatening to sweep away this pristine corner of the island. Their agreement with Maine Coast Heritage Trust set the future of the Stone Barn Farm in a new direction, one that forecloses further development and opens the land to all, so long as current laws and civilization stand.

[1] See Appendix A: Duane Braun, “The Stone Barn Site Geology,” personal communication, July 7, 2020.

[2] Maulian Dana, Penobscot Tribal Ambassador, Statement to Maine Statehood and Bicentennial Conference, May 31, 2019.

[3] Harald Prins and Bunny McBride, Asticou’s Island Domain: Ethnographic Overview and Assessment, Vol. 2 (Boston: National Park Service, 2007) 404.

[4] Todd Little-Siebold, personal communication with the author, July 8, 2020.

[5] It would be advantageous to scan the 1807 John Peters map, kept by the Bar Harbor Historical Society, and to georeferenced it, to determine how the present-day location of the Stone Barn corresponds with the map.

[6] Sheldon Goldthwait, genealogist, personal correspondence with the author, July 11, 2020.

[7] Elden B. Maddocks, History of the Twenty-Sixth Maine Regiment (Bangor: Charles H. Glass, 1899), 56-58.

[8] Ancestry.com. U.S., Selected Federal Census Non-Population Schedules, 1850-1880 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.

[9] Letter from DeLorraine Higgins to Benjamin Higgins, January 14 and February 12, 1863. Mount Desert Island Historical Society.

[10] “Anyone who has seen the misery of men only, has seen nothing. You have to see the misery of women.” Victor Hugo, Julie Rose Trans., Les Miserables (New York: Modern Library, 2008), 611. 

[11] Sheldon Goldthwait, “Descendants of Richard H. Paine,” a genealogical report created on June 17, 2020.

[12] Maddocks, History of the Twenty-Sixth Maine, 225.

[13] United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Continuation Sheet, Stone Barn Farm, Hancock (County) Maine

[14] Bar Harbor Times, December 14, 1939.

[15] Interview with the author, October 16, 2019.

[16] Bangor Daily News, July 21-22, 2001.

[17] I am indebted to Todd Little-Siebold, Professor of History at College of the Atlantic, an expert in the history of farming, who walked the ground with me on July 8, 2020.

[18] Ralph Stanley believes the name, “Barcelona” is associated with the name of a ship constructed nearby.

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