In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Farmington: Franklin County's Shiretown

Brief History

By Melanie Taylor Coombs and Wendy Simpson
With images from Farmington Historical Society, Farmington Public Library, and Maine Historical Society

1794 map of Farmington
1794 map of FarmingtonFarmington Historical Society

"Farmington is undoubtly one of the best agricultural towns in the state, and when we consider the extent of its geographical area, the fertility of it soil, its varied mechanical industries, its mercantile and professional pursuits, and also consider the fact that it has been the shire town of the county of Franklin for almost half a century, none will deny that such a town has a history, and that it should be preserved. The pioneers who came to found a home for themselves and their families were generally without pecuniary means. Mere hangers-on were not tolerated nor did they find welcome among the early settlers. Many of these pioneers had seen hard service in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars, had been inured to hardship, toil, and poverty, and fully realized the blessings of home and its comforts. They were generally men in the prime of manhood’s strength, and with vigorous blows leveled forests and brought under cultivation a virgin soil, the fruits of which furnished abundant sustenance for all. Amid the curling smoke and dying flame they erected their log-cabins and hovels, and thither conducted in triumph their wives and children." (A History of Farmington Maine 1776-1885, Francis Gould Butler)

In southern Franklin County, thirty-six miles northwest of Augusta and eighty miles north of Portland, lies Farmington, Maine, a town currently populated by roughly 7,600 people. It is still known for the rolling hills, clear rivers, and fertile farmlands that attracted settlers here over two hundred years ago.

The Sandy River, Farmington’s largest waterway, is bubbling and docile for most of the year, making it hard for travelers on the Rt. 2 & 4 bridge to imagine it strong enough to move mammoth chunks of ice and snow during the spring flood season.

Although no longer the bustling agricultural hub it was in the 1800s, evidence of this important community characteristic can still be seen from many subtle vantage points. Whether viewing the sap lines of Mosher Hill in the early springtime or the tall stalks of corn on the Sandy River Flats, modern-day Farmington is still highly influenced by its early agrarian roots.

As the Franklin County seat, Farmington continues to be a forerunner in politics, education and Western Maine business practices. Home of the award-winning University of Maine at Farmington, a small public liberal arts college, Farmington continues to attract students, scholars, and academics to this otherwise quaint and rural area of Maine.

Farmington is unique because much of its history is well documented and many significant artifacts have been preserved. In 1846, Judge Thomas Parker wrote the first history of Farmington; a mere fifty-two years after the town was incorporated. Five decades later, Francis Gould Butler picked up Parker’s threads and wove them into a quilt work tome carefully chronicling a century of facts, personalities and genealogical information. More recently, numerous books, written by Ben and Natalie Butler recorded history of area neighborhoods. These “pilgrimages”, as they were called, allowed interested citizens to experience a site-by-site walking tour of Farmington’s early history.

The Butler’s were tireless historians and archivists. They strove to preserve documents, ephemera, books, photographs and even the very burlap sack carried by Farmington’s first settler, Stephen Titcomb. Their actions, along with local collectors and preservationists created an unusual historical time capsule that helped make Farmington exceptional. The Butler’s excitement for local history was contagious. Many residents credit their interest in the town to the neighborhood pilgrimages.

It is unclear when the Native Americans first came to the area they referred to as the “great intervale”. The availability of both water and wildlife allowed them to live comfortably for an indefinite period of time. “The streams and forests of the Sandy River Valley originally abounded with beaver, otter, sable, and various species of animals yielding furs which afforded liberal encouragement…” to the aboriginal population. (History of Farmington Maine From Its Settlement to 1846, Thomas Parker)

View of Farmington, ca. 1910
View of Farmington, ca. 1910Maine Historical Society

The rivers provided an excellent form of transportation for these original inhabitants. The Sandy River is “commodious for canoeing. It has a gentle pitch over its distance and provides a direct Kennebeck-Rangeley Lakes\Androscoggin canoe connection. At Farmington Falls, the Indian Village of Amascontee, ‘plenty of ale-wives’ was an easy canoe trip from Norridgewock on the Maine Kennebec.” (History of Farmington Maine From Its Settlement to 1846, Thomas Parker) The Carrabassett has long and thundering rapids, while the Sandy meanders through the broad and fertile valley with canoe connections to the Belgrade\Kennebec Lake system.” (Above the Gravel Bar: The Indian Canoe Routes of Maine, David Cook) It is very clear that Farmington’s Sandy River had for “ … sometime in the not remote past, served as a highway for the Abenakis.” (The Sandy River & Its Valley, Vincent York)

Although the early Indian settlements were largely uninhabited by the time the first white settlers arrived--these foundations proved vitally important to these early pioneers. The area’s Native Americans had begun much of the arduous work Farmington’s forefathers needed to establish solid roots for a quickly thriving community. They had partially cleared the land and created trodden pathways necessary to create a town from wilderness.

The geographic location proved to be vitally important to these hard working early inhabitants. The meadows provided grazing area for livestock, the soil was fertile for crops, and the different kinds of elevations provided a variety of wood, “…maple, birch, beach, (sic) ash, elm, basswood, pine, hemlock, fir, spruce, cedar with some oak on the highlands and hackmetack on the lowlands.” (History of Farmington Maine From Its Settlement to 1846, Thomas Parker)

The geology of Western Maine contributed to the successful development of the community. Granite left behind after the ice age formed much of the landscape. In the distance, Mt. Blue stands as a sentinel overlooking Farmington. Clay left behind from the silt of the rising and ebbing river waters allowed Farmington to have two brickyards in the 1870’s. The readily available granite, clay, and wood helped the town develop into a thriving hub. The granite provided the building blocks for early homes that still stand today.

According to The History of the State of Maine by William D. Williamson, Maine flourished immediately after the American Revolution. “In the short period of thirteen future months, there were incorporated nineteen towns…”. Although it is not entirely clear why Farmington’s founders moved to the Sandy River Valley, there are some assumptions that can be made given the historical climate of post revolutionary America.

Most likely these men brought their families to create a better life than the ones they had left behind. “Conditions were critical along the coast for many months. The failure of the American expedition to the Penobscot in 1779 was a costly one. The lumber trade, which had been the prinicipal means for purchasing provisions was in enemy hands. Food was practically non-existent. The bumper crops of hay and grain, which had been expected in the spring, were almost totally destroyed because of lack of care. Farmers and lumbermen were performing soldiers’ duties. Under these difficult circumstances, many families left the coast” and other New England regions. (The Falls: Where Farmington, Maine Began in 1776, Ben & Natalie Butler)

Amid “rumors that backcountry lands were free for the taking”, young men and soldiers disenfranchised after the revolution began looking for areas to settle. Agrarian laws designed to “confiscate land holdings and redistribute them to the landless”, temporarily freed many from traditional societal constraints. Alive with new possibilities these men began settling uninhabited areas of Western Maine. (Liberty Men and the Great Proprietors, Alan Taylor)

As early as 1776, Stephen Titcomb, Robert Gower, and others came to the area with settlement in mind. Mr. Titcomb prepared well. He built a log home and planted crops for later use. He set out in 1780 with his, wife Betsey, her brother, a small son and a newborn baby, whose birth had delayed their departure. They were stopped in Readfield by a tremendous snowstorm and the women and children were forced to remain for four months until spring, while the men journeyed ahead on snowshoe.

Titcomb’s planning and resolve helped to establish the tone of the community. The early inhabitants from Topsham, Augusta, Hallowell, Damariscotta, Dunstable (MA), Martha’s Vineyard (MA), and other areas of New Hampshire and Massachusetts were hard working, educated and skilled. Each contributed to the settlement using their own skills to build and sustain a growing town. (A History of Farmington Maine 1776-1885, Francis Gould Butler)

On their arrival the early settlers began to divide the land. An “arrangement was made with the Committee of the Proprietors of the Kennebec Purchase, by Ruben Colburn and his associates.” A survey would be completed at the expense of the associates, those admitted, as settlers would have to meet certain conditions. Essentially, those founding the community would be obliged to assist in the development of a strong infrastructure, building roads, designing bridges and establishing mills. They would also contribute to the ministerial building as well as attending public meetings. The first meeting of the Associates was held in 1783, Oct 15. (History of Farmington Maine From Its Settlement to 1846, Thomas Parker)

Maine’s post revolutionary towns were incorporating quickly. There was much confusion over land ownership during this time. Native Americans had a much different concept of land ownership. It was not unusual for them to sell land to different exploring entrepreneurs. In the transition from monarchical rule to representative rule, clarity over land ownership was dubious at best. One of the first things confronting the original land barons of the Sandy River intervale was to make sure the official survey was completed. In 1780 Joseph North formalized the survey of the area.

The innovative founders in 1776, lacking a “chain”, the tool used to measure land, staked out property lines using basswood bark, The “men measured off six parcels of land, each 100 rods wide and extending one mile from the river. They then drew lots to establish ownership.” (The Falls: Where Farmington, Maine Began in 1776, Ben & Natalie Butler) They had measured the lots using a stationary object as a focal point, a large boulder, known as the “Measuring Rock” that still stands on Routes 2 & 27.

As with other areas in colonial America, much of the trade was done by bartering. The first winter in the settlement, while waiting for his family to arrive, Stephen Titcomb tapped trees and began making maple syrup. The syrup was a staple sugar source to early inhabitants; it is believed local Indians, such as Pierpole, taught the residents how to boil sap into syrup. The Titcomb family has been one of Maine’s longest producers of maple syrup, yet in the early years Stephen’s syrup and maple sugar were traded for other necessary goods. Within a few short years, Farmington boasted a rising population, active mills and a bustling local economy.

Farmington’s early years were not without considerable hardship. Parker’s History of Farmington has several unflinching accounts of reoccurring “freshets”. While the settlers toiled to establish homes, bridges and mills the Sandy River would suddenly rise or create vast ice jams, which would destroy everything in the raging water’s path.

In October 1785 there “occurred the first of a series of great freshets, which from time to time have overflowed the valley of the river, entailing more or less destruction upon property in their course…Such freshets occur perhaps one a year on an average, and, leaving as they do deposits on the intervals, which are valuable as fertilizers, may be regarded as a benefit rather that a detriment to the land. The freshet of this year, however, amounted to a flood…”. Three local homes were destroyed. (A History of Farmington Maine 1776-1885, Francis Gould Butler)

Farmington’s history will continue to be shaped by the force of the Sandy River’s unstoppable waters, which rise and fall as the mountain tributaries overflow with melted ice and snow.

Stephen Titcomb’s well-laid plans were at least partially in vain. Despite his preparations—tapping trees, preserving harvest and clearing lands—upon his arrival, he found most of his stores damaged by bears. A few years later, in 1783, the entire town suffered when early frost destroyed corn and wheat crops.

Farmington Public Library, 1916
Farmington Public Library, 1916Farmington Public Library

Although the residents were confronted with a variety of hardships, education and cultural pursuits were exceedingly important to them. All of the original settlers could read. Supply Belcher, “The Handel of Maine” was famous for his music and contribution to society. “He became the first Town Clerk of Farmington in 1798; and for a part of that period he served as Selectman. He taught in the schools of Farmington, became a prominent educator of his time, and took part in the musical life of the community in which he became its first choir director.” (Music and Musicians on Maine, George Thornton Edwards) Belcher’s impact on Farmington’s role as a cultural center in Maine is undeniable, not only for his eloquent influence, but for his direct impact on the day-to-day operations of a community in its infancy.

It is rumored that Belcher also taught the children of Pierpole, a local Native American. Pierpole was noted for his interaction with explorers and military men in the pre-colonial era. There are several derivations of Pierre Paul’s Christian name found in historical records. He was given land on the Sandy River for his services in the American Revolution. Pierpole married Hannah Sussup and had several children. He was called upon to settle land claims as Maine was being settled.

By 1799, with an education system in place and music being performed at the Center Meeting House, Titcomb and his fellow founders set their sights on forming a Social Library; the motto “Knowledge Comes Through Study”. In Butterfield’s General Store, the men met to loan and borrow books to better themselves. Since it’s incorporation, Farmington has been without a library for only 20 years. Today, the town is still known for its cultural heritage. World famous opera singer Lillian Nordica called Farmington her home. Throughout the years, the community has had notable bands, movie theaters, and venues for live performances. In the 1800s, however, it was better known for its outstanding agriculture.

Farmington Fair, 1909
Farmington Fair, 1909Farmington Historical Society

In 1840, the Maine State Legislature “granted a charter to the Franklin County Agricultural Society” for the purpose of creating a fair for Farmington and the surrounding communities. Since that time, the Farmington Fair has been the county’s premier autumn social event. “Throughout its history [the farmington fair] has proved of great value in arousing an interest in agricultural matters, and stimulating a competition among farmers.” (History of the Farmington Fair, The First 150 Years: 1840-1990, Mildred Luce Ross & Donald Fletch)

In fact, farmers were extremely influential in the functioning of town business. As the production of agricultural goods increased, their wealth and status in the community solidified. Farmers “had a great deal to do with town government, and through the influence of the Grange, they assisted in determining state policies.” Many of these men also turned to inventing and plant development. Rare trees and unusual species were brought to town to improve the aesthetics of the community and to create better agricultural stocks. (ibid.)

The need for rapid transport of crops and wood products influenced the development of an efficient railway system in the area throughout the later 1800s. Introduction of the two-foot gauge railroads allowed for the quick movement of timber south and tourists north. For the first time in western Maine’s history, rural communities had reliable transportation to other areas of the state. This changed the face of Maine permanently.

Map of Farmington, 1910
Map of Farmington, 1910Farmington Historical Society

“Just before World War I the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes Railroad reached its peak of prosperity…” giving Franklin County, Maine a “dependable transportation” system. (The Maine Scenic Route: A History of the Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes Railroad, H. Temple Crittenden) Today, many of the existing rail beds have been converted into heavily-used recreational trails.

As the popularity of train transportation grew, it allowed more isolated residents to enjoy cultural activities in other larger communities. Smaller towns looked to Farmington as a hub of musical and social entertainment while Farmington’s resident looked to Lewiston as a broader source of cultural activities. “This amounted to considerable traffic especially after the development of movies.” In fact, a social route was added to accommodate those wishing to attend D.W. Griffith’s epoch film The Birth of a Nation. (The Last 100 Years: A Glimpse of Farmington We Have Known, Richard Mallett)

This era also ushered in a new realm of civic interest. The townswomen played an enormously important role in the development of social services. The Monday Club, The Evergreen Club, The Art Study Group, The Lunkhead Club, The Literary Society of West Farmington and The West Farmington Village Improvement Society were just a few. Some entities existed strictly for social gathering with others were created to better the lives of local citizens. Many of the detailed records of these organizations, by-laws and minutes, outline contributions of shoes or household items to less fortunate families. Both the Farmington Public Library and The Farmington Historical Society possess archival holdings from local civic organizations.

Those interested attended lectures by notables like Joshua Chamberlain or bettered themselves via the Chautaqua program, a rural educational-cultural movement popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which traveled to the area from 1916-1932. (ibid.)

Farmington Historical Society

The demand for education and enlightenment originated with the early settlers and continued to the modern day. Educational opportunities were a priority throughout Farmington’s history. At one time, the town boasted 32 school districts, mostly one-room schoolhouses. In John S.C. Abbott’s History of Maine, Farmington was touted as a community that “deserves rather special notice. Upon the rich meadows through with the Sandy River glides, the cornfields of the Canabus Indians formerly waved in the breeze. This beautiful village has become quite renowned for its cluster of literary institutions.”

As citizens had just settled into reading, recently published, Francis Gould Butler’s monumental history of Farmington, the town’s tale took a devastating turn. Suspected to have started from a spark from a locomotive on the nearby narrow gauge railroad—fire broke loose on Pleasant Street on October 22, 1886. While the local telegraph operator frantically sent SOS messages to surrounding towns, local firefighters tried unsuccessfully to battle the inferno.

Lewiston and Portland quickly sent fire-fighting equipment on freight trains, which proved the salvation of the community. Their rapid action prevented destruction that would have been far worse. In total, 32 homes and 42 businesses were ruined. “Farmington was to bounce back quickly from its holocaust. In 1887 reconstruction of the damaged village was progressing with intensity. By 1888 the town was being compared to the Phoenix bird that became immortal by renewing itself from its own ashes.” (The Last 100 Years: A Glimpse of Farmington We Have Known, Richard Mallett)

The tremendous fire proved to be a blessing for Farmington. Many of the buildings erected following the fire proved to be more beautiful and functional than those destroyed in the fire. It also demonstrated the unique spirit of the community. Immediately after the fire a Town Meeting was held to aid families in crisis. Today, much of the downtown and many architectural gems exist because of this devastating fire.

As Farmington entered the 20th Century, most of the amenities enjoyed by today’s world became part of the town’s legacy. Telegraph service had been in place since shortly after the Civil War, and phone service was established by the early 1900’s. Electricity and phone lines dotted the landscape about the same time. Not long after, the town was seeing the “mechanical horse” on the streets. A number of dealerships were advertising their “exceptional machines” by 1910. Soon Farmington had a gas station on Main Street. Yet, as quickly as the town changed, much remained the same. The dirt lanes and roads were still muddy or impassible much of the year. It would be decades before paved highways were completed. Despite the impending future impact of the automobile—Farmington retained its rural landscape until roads were navigable year round.

The Farmington Village Corporation, established in 1850, would eventually provide of a clean water system for the village; the system was developed because of the need of water for both residences and for fire protection--a result of the 1886 fire. The Corporation also subsidized the fire department and police department. Eventually it provided the first street and traffic lights.

As the town grew, the downtown business district began to thrive. Farmington became a busy hub for noted doctors and attorneys. The banks, stores and insurance companies flourished. Soon, a much-needed hospital would be established on South Street.

Hotels and restaurants would host the volumes of tourists passing through on their way to the “up country” where fishing and hunting would be the draw. But those same folks coming from Boston or New York could enjoy the fineries provided by fresh linen on both tables and beds, because Farmington also boasted a steam laundry.

Education would continue to be a very important part of Farmington – in the Farmington State Normal School, Abbott School, and public schools. And the Normal School would be the catalyst for improved education in the public sector.

Farmington is a proud community – proud of their downtown, proud of their heritage, and proud of their education. And today as you drive through our town, you’ll see buildings and grounds dating back to the early years of our town – all shining brightly and proudly because of the care the town takes of its heritage.