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  • by Karen Cummings

The Founding of Fryeburg Village

In the days of royal rule and privilege, soldiers of the crown were rewarded with grants of land in return for years of faithful service. Brought to the shores of America, this custom served to benefit both the giver and the receiver of the grant.

Blessed with large tracts of unclaimed land, the government could be assured that the waiting wilderness was assigned and settled in an orderly manner, and the gallant and brave soldiers of the new country were rewarded with parcels of land that provided them with a guaranteed future.

Thus was the land referred to as Pigwacket (a common spelling of the Indian name Pequawket), located at the "great bend" of the Saco River granted to Joseph Frye of Andover, Massachusetts, in the year 1762. Frye, who had attained the rank of colonel by the time of his grant, had joined the militia forces of his state at an early age and, as he stated in his petition for land to the governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, had "spent the prime of his life in defense of his country."

In the legalese of the day, Frye humbly petitioned for the lands between "the uppermost settlements of the Saco... and the mountains above Pigwacket." He stated that they would make "considerably good settlements" and diplomatically added that inhabiting them would "consequently render them more valuable to the Government."

A civil engineer by trade, despite spending most of his life in the militia, Frye had chosen the Pequawket plains because of the evidence of fertile lands for farming, combined with the possibilities of great proceeds from lumbering. Unique among the rivers of New England, which generally flow in a straight path to the sea, the Saco, at this point, meanders over 32 miles through a wide intervale while traveling a real distance of only two miles. Being an astute New Englander, Frye fully realized the possibilities of developing a community well-suited for farming in the wide fertile valley formed and nourished by the Saco and its tributaries.

Having served with distinction throughout his military career and enduring much hardship while captured during the French and Indian Wars, Frye was quickly granted the tract of land he desired. Initially covering an area of approximately six square miles, the land did not come without conditions imposed by the Massachusetts government. Frye was expected to settle the land with approximately "sixty good families" and they, in turn, were to clear at least seven acres of land and build "a good house at twenty feet by eighteen" within five years. Other stipulations were that land was to be set aside for schools "forever" and for the use of a Protestant minister and parsonage "forever." The settlers of the area were also required to have a Protestant Minister settled among them within 10 years.

The nature of the founder of the present village of Fryeburg, and the aforementioned requirements, served to set the tone of the town. Once the first task of clearing the land and the hardships of developing a town in a virgin territory where overcome, the importance of education and religion became foremost to the early residents of the town.

The first settlers to pass a winter in Pigwacket were John Stevens, Nathaniel Merrill, and Limbo, a black man and a slave. During the fall of 1762, these three men drove 105 cattle and 11 horses from Gorham to the area on the Saco given to Colonel Frye in his grant, and camped with them all winter, feeding the livestock with hay that had been cut the previous summer from the abundant meadows above the river. They subsisted themselves almost exclusively on the resultant supply of milk.

The granite monument that stands at the juncture of Portland and Main streets in Fryeburg Village was first erected in 1902 (the current monument is a replacement of the original) by a great-grandson of John Stevens, who was so proud of his ancestor's achievement that he commissioned a memorial. In earlier times, this fountain provided liquid nourishment for both man and beast as they went about their business in the village.

The first families arrived in Pigwacket in 1763 and more followed in 1764. With only narrow trails to follow and many rivers and streams to cross, no items of luxury made the trip from Concord, New Hampshire, and Andover, Massachusetts, the previous homes of the majority of early Fryeburg settlers. John Stuart Barrows states in his 1938 account, Fryeburg, An Historical Sketch, " the gun and the axe were the principal requirements of the man, while, the housewife had to get along with a kettle and a frying pan..."

The choice location of Frye's grant served these early settlers well. Once the laborious job of clearing the land was accomplished, the crops planted by the settlers were bounteous, owing to the fact that they were tilled on virgin land--and the most fertile and tillable in the region. Meat and fish were in great supply in the surrounding forests and lakes and streams and the harsh winters were made easier with preserved pork products from the swine they raised that roamed free, garnering their living in the woods from the roots and nuts.

Crude one-room structures made from unhewn logs were the first form of shelter for these early inhabitants. Prosperity brought more refined homes--substantial two-story houses with large center chimneys. Due to the isolation of the community, early residents of Pigwacket had to possess myriad skills. Furniture making, blacksmithing, farming, and homebuilding were within the masculine realm, while the women had to be bakers, weavers, sewers, and homemakers. Secular and religious education for the children was deemed especially important but for the first few years, necessity made that the job of both parents until the establishment of public schools.

Organized instruction for the township's schoolchildren was one of the first orders of business of the town fathers following incorporation of the Town of Fryeburg in 1777. A schoolmaster was appointed in that year and a sum of money was raised for his support. As the population of the township was spread over a large area, it was necessary to build many schoolhouses to accommodate the swelling population in succeeding years. At one point there were 17.

The first settlers of Fryeburg were well-eucated with many of the first "proprietors" having degress from Harvard. It was understandable that as the settlers gained more control of their environment, they sought further education in the amenities of civilization for their offspring. In order to render the youth of their community "virtuous, useful and ornamental to society," the concerned citizens of Fryeburg joined with those from Brownfield and Conway and petitioned the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for financial help in establishing an academy to provide more advanced English studies and Latin and Greek.

The desired form of assistance was received and the communities proceeded to establish and build the school. First constructed at the base of Pine Hill at the entrance to Fryeburg Village, the school moved to its present site in 1806. Most often, graduates of Dartmouth and Bowdoin served as teachers of the first academy to be establihsed in Maine with Daniel Webster being one of the most famous. The school was held in high regard by educators of the time and brought much esteem to the community of Fryeburg. Of interest in modern times, Fryeburg Academy has provided higher education for both men and women since its inception, albeit with a differing emphasis during the initial years.

Much of the early development of Fryeburg was overseen by its founder, Joseph Frye. A meticulous man, he drafted numerous letters and petitions on behalf of the town to the government of Massachuetts, which held jurisdiction over the territory of Maine until 1820. Frye's initial grant underwent many alterations. When the boundary between the provinces of New Hampshire and Maine was run in 1766, it was discovered that 4144 acres of Colonel Frye's grant were in the province of New Hampshire. To atone for this, the government of Massachusetts granted Frye a triangle of land sbutting the northwest corner of his earlier grant, which was then known as the Fryeburg Addition until incorporated into a town under the name of Stow. Another addition on the Brownfield side of Fryeburg also altered the shape of Frye's township.

Though Colonel Frye chose a high point of ground very close to the geographical center of his grant for his own residence, he inadvertently sabotaged his plans for the population center of the township to also be located at the same point. On the plains in the part of the township nearest the boundary between New Hampshire and Maine, Frye laid out a series of seven lots of 40 acres each, unconsciously determining the town's nucleus three miles southwest of where he wanted it to be.

What the venerable founder of Fryeburg could not foresee was the opening of a highway through the White Mountains to the Connecticut River Valley, which would ultimately put the "Seven Lots" of Fryeburg directly on the most logical path from those western areas through to a seaport. Two hunters, Nash and Sawyer, discovered the path through the White Mountains in 1773 and the neighboring towns of Bartlett, Conway, and Fryeburg raised the necessary funds to build and maintain a Toll Road through the "Notch," which was completed after the Revolutionary War.

Road construction was always of the utmost importance to the practical Frye, but in the early years of the settlement, only roads connecting the community were considered. Settlers were either taxed or they "paid in work" for the construction of the roads. In 1772, however, Frye began to look outward and petitioned the government of Massachusetts for help in deferring the cost of constructing a road between the growing community of Fryeburg and the seaport of Falmouth (Portland). He foresaw this road as a means to bring in the "necessities that are lacking" as he stated in his petition.

The opening of the two roads served to promote trade between the coast and the communities in the mountains causing Fryeburg to become a commercial hub. The location of the "Seven Lots," which was the name of Fryeburg Village until its incorporation as a town in 1777, afforded the most convenient stopping place for the many teams and wagons carrying the products of the farms and forests to the sea and returning with the supplies of salt, molasses, fish, and rum.

Though still well-suited to be a farming community as Frye had envisioned, it was as a commercial center that Fryeburg flourished and grew until the whole complexion of the town changed, as remembered by Mrs. Lucia Griswold Merrill and recorded by John Stuart Barrows, "My earliest recollections of Fryeburg (early 1800s) are of it as a business center. Fryeburg Corner was the business center for all the country around, and Saturday afternoonthe village was so thronged that we young people did not venture through the crowd unless there was urgent need."

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