A Maine Island Chicken Farm
By Ernest L. White
Hampton Union, Ca. 1935
Hampton, New Hampshire
Anyone passing by this nice spring morning might look up and see an old geezer sunning himself in the lee of a garage and wood shed, and that's about all they would notice. They might be surprised if they knew that as I sit here, I'm looking more than years behind the curtain of time, and I'm seeing two young enthusiastic city slickers being rowed down the Sheepscott River in Maine during the month of February, by Mr. "Clamdigger" McGregor in a little leaky, smelly skiff which he used in his business of digging and transporting clams.
He wore rubber boots and oil skins over heavy wool clothing, while we, his passengers, were dressed in our Sunday best apparel that conformed and obeyed the dictates of city fashions of that period. Thin, patent leather buttoned shoes, our best suit of clothes, a dark overcoat with a little velvet collar, and on our heads a "derby" hat. Mr. McGregor wore a yellow sou-easter with ear laps tied down under his chin and on his hands, thick woolen mittens. We had thin dress gloves on our aching half frozen hands which we tried to keep warm by shoving them into our overcoat pockets.
We embarked at Wiscasset in the early morning hours so as to take advantage of the tide on the ten mile row that would eventually take us to our prospective chicken farm on the tip of Georgetown Island directly across from West Port Island.
Shivering in the cold light of dawn, we gingerly climbed down the slippery dock ladder and stepped into the boat. At once, water, cold icy water on which floated the bleached, dead bodies of clams rushed towards me and covered my shiny shoes. Quickly, but not quickly enough, I stepped up on a frost covered seat. Mr. McGregor frowned and bid me sit down and stop rocking the boat. And so I did, while he bailed out some of the water. I wiggled my wet toes in my wet shoes while I felt the chilling damp of melting frost gradually penetrate the seat of my pants. Then McGregor pointed at me with the dripping bailing scoop and told me I better pull the tails of my overcoat out of the water still in the boat, or they would get wet and even after they dried out would smell "sort of clammy".
He said, "Some folk don't like the smell of dead clams."
Across the waters of the harbor at Birch Point a four-mast schooner was being loaded with ice; while off shore a smaller vessel was moored, awaiting its cargo of brick.
Only a abort distance away the black shiny head of an inquisitive seal arose ghost-like from the storming water and than silently sunk out of sight. I shivered in my thin wet clothes and watched the whirling waters of the Big Eddy as McGregor skillfully guided our craft into the entrance of Front River.
"Better bail", he said. "She leaks a little."
To keep our foot out of the slushing water, Jim and I shared a sack full of clams that were really dead, a clam fork and a couple of slotted clam baskets. At intervals we bailed with the wooden scoop bailer, but there is a knack in using it successfully without splashing and accidentally spilling water over those seated in front of you. In time we caught on, for we had a lot of practice before we arrived at our destination.
We learned a lot that cold February day both from Mr. McGregor and from the elements. We learned that we were not dressed properly to sit for hours on a wet seat (both our own and the boat's), and bail water from a leaky boat. Experience and "Clamdigger" McGregor told us that he learned how cold and wet fog can be in February as it drifts and eddies about you and leaves big drops of ice water that drip from your nose, your ears or eye lashes. We learned how dismal a bell buoy and fog horn can sound and how in time your feet and legs become so cold and numb that you cease to realize they are a part of your body. We learned how monotonous is the sound of "chocking" oars between creaking thole pins, and the ice encrusted rocky shoreline with its waving, swaying kelp and rock weed that beckoned to us as we gazed into the water of the Sheepscott River. While we shivered and shook in our thin wet clothes and wondered if the trip would ever end.
But that wasn't the worst thing we learned, for McGregor told us that the house on our prospective chicken farm was "haunted", the roof leaked like a clam basket, the doors wouldn't shut tight and some windows were broken. The only out building he said, was the remains of an old fish house that set on piling, out over the water.
"If it 'haint been washed down river by some late storm", he added.
That information was bad enough, but then ho told us that all our supplies; the freight that we had shipped a week before to Five Islands via Portland by boat, never arrived at Five Islands.
"It was left at Boothbay because the boat to Five Islands ain't running no more for a spell", he said.
McGregor seemed to get a lot of satisfaction out of telling us disagreeable facts that were humorous to him.
"But what are we going to do", we chimed. "We've got to get it some how. All our clothes and food, our incubators and tools, everything we own is in that batch of freight."
Mr. McGregor took a few more strokes of the oars before answering. He headed our leaking smelly skiff into a little cove, stepped out onto the flats mud, and motioned us to disembark. Explaining that the tide was too strong for him to row us through the narrows between West Port Island and Georgetown Island, but that our farm was only a short walk away, "Through those trees in that direction." He pointed towards a thick growth of wet, dripping spruce and smiled.
Then he added, "I know a feller that will bring your freight over from Boothbay in his tugboat for fifteen dollars." "You want me to get him to?" "Strictly cash deal you understand", and he eyed us sharply.
We stood in the sticky black flats mud where Mcgregor had disembarked us, so cold and stiff we could hardly move, and so stunned by what he had told us that we first failed to realize the predicament we were in if what he said was true.
Jim was the first to recover from the bad news. "How come you know so much about our affairs?" he said, as he stepped out of the sticky mud onto a barnacle covered rook.
"Oh, I get around", replied McGregor as he smiled at us. "In my business digging and selling clams I talk to lots of folks and it's surprising what a lot of news a fellow can pick up if he keeps his ears open. Heard some folk talking and laughing down at the post-office yesterday about a couple of crazy city fellows that had hired the old poorhouse farm on Georgetown Island to go farming on. When I seen you guys, I reckoned you was them." He seemed quite pleased with his deductions.
"Oh! you did, did yer," Jim said angrily. "How do you know so blamed much about our freight being over to Boothbay, and how do you know the boat to Five Islands has been taken off, and how do you know it will cost us fifteen dollars to get it delivered here? How come you know so damn much about our business?"
Jim was getting madder all the time and I guess he planned to ask some more questions, but all at once the round barnacle covered rock he was perched on started to roll over and be had to stop asking questions and get his balance.
Mr. McGregor eyed us long and intently, then said, "I was over to Boothbay last night." Then a look of hurt anger came over his face and he said, half question, half statement, "You city slickers think I'm lying to you, don't you!?" He paused, then looking at us in amused contempt made a few more statements. "I was just trying to be neighborly ----- to hell with you ----- go find someone else to get your freight for you."
Then McGregor pushed his boat into deeper water, carefully washed the mud from his rubber boots, stepped into his punt, shipped his oars and rode away towards Wiscasset;-clump -- squ--e-ek, clump--clump, --- squ---e-e-k.
Feeling myself sinking down further into the flats mud, I shifted the suitcase that hold our "hatching" eggs and also four pork chops into my other hand and wallowed towards shore. My feet made sort of sucking, popping noises as I struggled towards a bunch of rock weed. My once shiny patent leather shoes were no longer visable behind the stinking mud that covered them.
Holding to rock weed and little crevises in the slippery ledge that hemmed in the cove, we climbed up and stood at last amongst the stunted hemlock and spruce that covered the finger like point of ledge that jutted out into the river and hid our farm from view.
Muttering and grumbling to himself, Jim led the way among low growing trade and juniper bushes that seemed to delight in reaching out with dead stiff hands to snag our clothes, while green limber whip like branches swished across our faces and left stinging welts that smarted and burned. At times as we tried to wallow through big clumps of juniper, some unseen hand reached up and grabbed us by a leg or ankle and laid us low.
It was after one of these wrestling junipers had reached up and laid me on my stomach that Jim turned and stopped muttering to himself long enough to say, "Look out there! You don't want to jar those eggs or they won't hatch!"
I thought of lots of snappy answers later, but all that came into my mind at the time was to offer him the chance to lug that muddy wet suitcase full of eggs and four pork chops, if he wanted to. But he didn't want to, I guess, 'cause he kept right on parting branches and letting them slap back into my face, while he expressed the hope that I hadn't let the eggs get chilled.
"'Cause if you have , he said, they won't hatch."
"Why, what a wise old owl you are", I told him as I picked up a dead branch and tried to trip him up.
But just then we came out of the woods and there was our farm; our chicken farm stretched out just below us.
Two windows in the gable end of the old unpainted weather beaten house stared at us vacantly like dead unseeing eyes. At right angles to the house, a rickety old fish house balanced precariously on leaning piling. No glass in its window and no door; only a gaping doorway that seemed like the entrance of some kind of trap.
Silently we stood contemplating the scene below us. Then as we stood there each with his own thoughts, the sun broke through the clouds and a gentle west wind blew the fog back towards MacMahan Island. The last thin vale of vapor rose and vanished into nothingness, while noisy sea gulls flew about a boat coming through Goose Rook Passage and dived down to get the scraps of food the lobster man in his dory threw to them.
Across the water towards the west, bright sunlight lay on the little village of Riggsville, while thin wisps of smoke spiraled upward, and windows shown with reflected sunshine. A little wharve and float jutted out into the water while behind the tiny town the spire of a church showed above the trees.
A sailboat rounded the nubble, its sails only portly drawing in the light soft breeze. To the southwest two men in a dory, with a small raft of logs in tow were hooded into Robinhood cove, enroute to the sawmill.It was a peaceful, restful scene, one to be long remembered and we both stood in silence and let the moment sink deep within us. Then Jim motioned in a half circle with his arm. "Pretty isn't it?", he said.
I nodded, hating to break the spell with talk.
But not Jim. "Yeah", he said. "It's sure pretty, but come on, we got work to do. Lots of work."
And so we came to our prospective chicken farm and summer school for boys, on the tip of Georgetown Island in Maine.
On our way down river, "Clamdigger" McGregor had informed us that the house on our prospective chicken farm was haunted. And in truth it had the looks and qualifications of a haunted house. It squatted on the rocky banks of the river, its sagging roof covered by worn mossy colored shingles. Many of the weathered unprinted clapboards were split or hanging loosely by one rusty nail, and waved slowly in the little breeze. But it was the bare staring windows, with here and there a broken pane that depressed me the most when I first saw it. If some ghostly face had looked out of them, I would not have been surprised.
It took the united efforts of the both of us to push open the door and enter.
We had been told that the house was partly furnished, that the essentials were there, everything we needed to keep house. Evidently the agent thought we did not need much.
There was a rusty stove and a piece or two of stove pipe laying on the dirty mouldy floor. One iron fry pan and tea kettle, and a stew pan hanging on nails in the wall. In the kitchen closet a small motley collection of dishes, many cracked, a handful of iron knives and forks, some corroded spoons and nothing else. In the bedroom we found a bureau, a wooden bed and straw filled tick that smelled mousy. Evidently it had at one time been the home of some long tailed rodent with a large family.
One thing, the old house was furnished with was an excess of chilling dampness and strange mysterious noises, especially at night. Doors that could not be opened and doors that swung open for known reason, even while you watched. Yes, the o1d house was wonderfully suited for ghosts and haunts. People we met later, from time to time, loved to tell us about the ghosts that haunted the old house and ask us if we had seen or heard them.
Generally we told them "no", but when I think of the first night Jim and I spent in that old house, I think I can truthfully say we heard haunts and ghosts even though we did not actually see them.
It had been a strenuous day for us. We had walked miles only to verify McGregor's statements about our freight. Everything "Clamdigger" McGregor told us we found was true, even to the price of reshipment, and the man who would do it for in. Ill we had accomplished was to delay further the arrival of our such needed supplies.
That evening, we sat about the rusty stove burning drift wood for warmth, each eating a pork chop from his respective hands, for the dishes were not washed, as yet. We ate and talked and made plans. Our only light was from a little wick of twisted string passing through a button that rested on the fat that was fried out from our pork chops. This make shift candle was known as a "bitch" or "slut."
It was then the haunts and ghosts took over. There were choking, gurgling noises and whisperings, coming seemingly from the cellar. Then a ghost started dragging some heavy object up the front stairs. It might have been the body of someone he had choked to death in the cellar!
We exchanged startled glances in the tiny light of our "bitch." The ghost now was dragging the body over the floor, up in the attic and we heard squeals and thumps as if some second haunt or ghost was trying to take the corpse away from the first! Then without warning the bedroom door behind us sque---e-k-ed open and at that very moment came a little knock on the window close by us and we saw a face looking in on us! Then from the dark shadows a white finger beckoned and pointed toward the door.
Somehow I found my feet had carried me to the outside door and for some unknown power within me opened it. Then, while I stood there stupidly looking out into the darkness, an elderly woman materialized, spoke and handed me a package. It was Mrs. Josephine Lewis, our nearest neighbor, whom we had never met, who had brought us food for our bodies and cheer for our spirits. Such are the people of Maine!
She paid us a long, cheerful visit, at that time (and many more later), laughed at us and with us, as she told what and who the ghosts really were that had infested our house. A high run of tide would enter our cellar and gurgle and whisper as it flowed in and out. The old fish house and also our house was the home of the big gray wharf rats who fought over and dragged stuff all over the house. And as for doors that opened and shut, why it was only the wind and frost that rocked the old warped home, first one way and then another. So we "laid" the ghosts to rest on our chicken farm.