Spite House in Rockport Maine: Garden Papers and Correspondence

By Steven Deschenes, MHS Volunteer

Garden lilies: L. testaceum, L. washingtonianum, L. humboldtii, and more – they came by the dozens from across North America, and they came to a small corner of mid-coast Maine.

Their destination? The gardens of the Spite House in Rockport, Maine.

Despite some plants having come thousands of miles their travels are not nearly as impressive as that of the Spite House itself. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the Spite House owes its existence to a family dispute from the early 19th century.

When Captain Thomas McCobb returned from a long voyage at sea, he discovered that his relatives had broken his father’s will and moved into the fine house his father had built in Phippsburg. In retaliation, or “spite,” he had an even more ornate home built strikingly close to his father’s usurped house.

The house was completed in 1806. By the early 20th century the house had seen better times and, in 1925, it was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Donald D. Dodge.

Shortly after purchasing the home, Mr. Dodge arranged for it to be moved (completely intact) from Phippsburg to Deadman’s Point in Rockport. The house was braced, lifted onto a barge, and shipped 85 miles to its present location. Once safely back on dry land, two more wings were built.

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The following year, Mr. Dodge had gardens installed according to a design by the landscape architect Robert Wheelwright. Now, thanks to a recent donation to the Maine Historical Society, we know just what bloomed!

Relatives of Mr. Dodge donated his documents pertaining to the gardens of the Spite House to the Maine Historical Society. Among the papers are purchase orders, receipts, plant lists, notes on plant care and propagation, catalogs, and letters.

Looking through the correspondence with over half a dozen plant nurseries (most of which appear to no longer exist), you discover the wide variety of lilies, roses, and alpine plants ordered and planted by Mr. Dodge and his gardener, Henry B. Williams, during the 1950’s. Mr. Dodge kept carbon copies of his letters detailing their successes and failures. It’s clear that he was an avid gardener with a keen interest in learning all he could about lily propagation.

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Reviewing the papers, you’re regaled with their struggles to control a common plant disease, Botrytis, that plagued particular species, especially during wet and damp periods of weather. Controlling the local woodcock population also took precedence, as it’s assumed the gamebirds – primarily an insect eating species – rooted around in the flower beds, disturbing young seedlings and causing general havoc to the flower beds.

Here’s a passage from a letter addressed to A.D. Rothman of Strawberry Hill Nurseries, dated October 15th, 1954:

I am having a wonderful time in my garden now preparing the planting arrangements for these lilies and planning where to put them. You can be assured they will have every care possible. They are planted amongst shrubs – Azaleas, Kalmia, Rhododendron, Mahonia, Bayberry – but I have learned to give them plenty of room and I have also learned to restrict the roots of the Mahonias and Bayberries by putting in sheets of zinc to give the lilies a head start. The Kalmias and Rhododendron are no problem and the same applies to most Azaleas but some of the Azaleas do have runners. However, I am having a hard time keeping up with my woodcock shooting and getting the lilies planted too!

By all appearances, the time period covered in the collection marked one of the high points in the history of the Spite House Gardens. While under the care of Mr. Williams, the gardens underwent an extensive expansion with a lily and wildflower garden planted in the woods south of the house, installations of a rock garden, an enclosed rose garden, island gardens in the lawns surrounding the property, and the construction of a greenhouse.

All in all, the collection provides a glimpse into what it took to plan, execute, and nurture flower gardens on the coast of Maine nearly 70 years ago!

 

Notes from the Archives: Maine’s Violin Makers

By Nancy Noble, MHS Archivist/Cataloger

In November 1996, James Kane sent Maine Historical Society a document about violin makers in Maine, which included the names of the violin makers, where they lived, and their birth and death dates. In his cover letter, Kane described a wealth of research papers on this topic and asked: “Would your organization be willing to eventually accept this material and house it there?”

Twenty years later, in May 2016, Kane sent us 18 notebooks of research papers about amateur and professional violin makers from Maine, including research notes, photographs, and newspaper clippings. Kane died shortly thereafter, in September of that year.

Who was James Kane, and what was his interest in violins?

James R. Kane (1948-2016) was from Portland, Maine, and graduated from Deering High School. He taught bands and orchestras in California for 36 years. His family summered in Maine since the 1960s at their camp on Sebago Lake, which had been in his family since the 1940s.

In 1978 Kane acquired a few locally made violins at an auction, and after trying to learn more about them he found there was very little to be learned from existing data in various books and historical institutions. His interest piqued, Kane researched and collected information on about 200 individuals in Maine who crafted violins, violas, fiddles, cellos, and basses from before the Civil War to the early 2000s.

He researched violin maker names online, in research libraries, historical societies, newspapers, and through writing letters to individual family members and friends. Whenever possible Kane traveled to examine individual instruments for authenticity and craftsmanship. Data collected by Kane verified that 200 Maine craftsmen constructed stringed instruments during the time span from before the Civil War to the early 2000s, for an estimated total of 2,500 to 3,000 instruments.

We are delighted to announce that this collection is now available for research (Coll. 2978)! Photographs of many of the instruments Kane researched can be found in the collection.

This rich collection provides a glimpse into one man’s passion, as well as providing detailed information on Maine’s legacy of violin makers over the past few centuries.


Below are several items from this collection featuring Henry Harris, considered one of Maine’s most famous violin makers and one of the instrument makers Kane researched.

Henry Harris (1832-1913) of Mercer, Maine, was a cobbler and farmer. Born in Winthrop, Maine to Caleb and Dorcas Harris, he made his first violin when he was 14 years old. Henry Harris was married three times: Abbie Maria Hatch, Ruth Works, and Rose Pickens (1840-1930).

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Photograph of Henry and Rose Harris
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Photograph of Henry Harris
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Photograph of Henry Harris violin

 

Notes from the Archives: The Big Bible

In March of this year the Bible Society of Maine donated to the Maine Historical Society a large handwritten Bible, which we affectionately refer to as “The Big Bible.”

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Coll. 2951 Big Bible title page 1

The Bible Society of Maine provides some background to this tome:

“The project, initiated in 1923 by then Superintendent of the Bible Society, Edmund T Garland, involved distributing pages from an old Bible along with large (21’x28′) blank sheets.

Individuals from across the State each copied a page using pen and ink. The desire was for a broad cross-section of citizens to participate.

The oldest was Aunt Mary, a 91-year-old Quaker from Brunswick; the youngest was a 6-year-old who wrote, ‘Jesus wept.’ One page was written by a millionaire, one by a pauper. One copyist was a college president; another was a man whose whole school life consisted of only a few weeks. Another was written by then Gov. Percival Baxter [Editor’s note: Governor Baxter’s page is the last page (Revelations)], and yet another by a prisoner serving a life term. A Jewish Rabbi and a Greek Catholic Priest did their pages with equal grace, and the Book of Ruth was copied by girls named Ruth. Many of the copyists were students at secondary schools or colleges, including a student from Cuba. Each signed their name at the bottom of the page.

There are also beautifully ink-drawn, full-page illustrations. Includes a hand-drawn title page by H. W. Shaylor that states ‘Hand-written copy of The Holy Bible containing the Old and New Testaments copied by 1607 Different People representing all classes, ages, and creeds with Seventeen full-page Illustrations and Maps made by seventeen other people.”

The Big Bible, also known as the Large Handwritten Bible, is one of the largest Bibles in the world and weighs about 88 pounds.

Although the names of the 1,607 transcribers were already indexed (and available in a small pamphlet), we asked our volunteer Charles A. Lane, Esq. (Charlie to us) to further index the transcribers so that we can learn more about them, such as where they lived and what school or organization they were associated with.

After Charlie finished this project we asked him to write about The Big Bible. He said:

“The Big Bible is an imposing document, measuring 23 x 29 x 4 ½ inches and weighing 88 ½ pounds. It was compiled under the auspices of the Bible Society of Maine from May 1923 to July 1924. 1607 persons volunteered as scribes, copying the text of the Old and New Testaments on paper which was carefully sized and ruled so that each page would contain 55 lines of text.

The participants come from many different backgrounds: one had served as a missionary in Japan from 1882-1919; one was the dean of Bowdoin College; one was a young student from Auburn who later would serve as an associate justice of the Maine Supreme Court; the youngest scribe (who noted that her birthdate was December 25, 1916) was seven; and Percival P. Baxter proudly inscribed the final page as Governor of Maine.

Some participants were critical of their peers: “This page was well written by Hazel Dwelley. . . and then spoiled by [a] careless writer. …”

The Bible contains drawings illustrating familiar Biblical stories and ends with several maps drawn by students at the Emerson School in Portland.

I came away from the project wondering how more than 1600 participants could write so legibly in cursive.

Below is a slideshow of photos of The Big Bible.

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You are welcome to come and visit The Big Bible and use it for research. To do so, you can look it up on our Minerva library catalog (Coll. 2951), and call our library to make an appointment to see this special treasure.

For additional reading on The Big Bible, here is a Memories of Maine article about the Bible published in the spring of 2011 by writer Bonnie Smith.