Ben Pierce shares a photograph of the “Snakepit,” a sunken garden overlooking Harbor Brook in Seal Harbor. In the summer of 1973, he excavated the site of the current garden and unearthed the foundation of a farmhouse built around 1800-1904. With research, he was able to learn more about the lives of the farmhouses’ builders and original inhabitants, the Smallidges.

Oral History:

Oral History Transcript: 
ES: This is Eloise Schultz with Ben Pierce for the History Harvest on July 10th, 2019. Thanks for coming in today, Ben! Could you start out by telling us about the object you’ve brought for us today?

BP: Certainly, Eloise. There’s actually two objects—one’s a photograph, and the other’s a painting—of an old foundation, which we believe was from a farmhouse built around 1800, 1804, by the Smallidge family. It’s actually represented in the Chebacco of 2017, on page 64. This foundation from long ago disappeared for decades, if not over a century, until 1968, when my parents bought the six acres of property located across from Bear Island, on the road between Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor. It’s on the inland side of the road, looking out at Sutton’s Island and Bear Island. And there’s always been a field there, although we didn’t know why there was a field there. But my parents bought the property, and it was my summer job then to do two things: excavate the foundation, see if we could clear it out, and what we could find. A friend of mine joined me that summer of 1973. We took out old rusted antique cars—it was essentially almost a garbage dump inside this cellar hole. And the photograph shows  the cellar hole once we excavated it, and my mother converted it into a sunken garden. She planted flowers in it, and put in a nice stone you could sit on and meditate. The photographs shows the sunken garden with the flowers in it, where you can sit low and look out at Sutton’s Island because the land slopes away. It’s lovely. And the photograph shows an L-shaped, small cabin, which is probably no more than about twelve feet at the maximum, in terms of its depth, and maybe fifteen feet wide. Tiny little place. But this sunken garden can be seen on the old maps as one of the buildings that was owned by the Smallidge family.

The [article in] Chebacco talks about how they timbered and lumbered the trees on the property. They cleared it—so that field you can see from the road, right next to Harbor Brook on the left as you go toward Seal Harbor—is still the one remaining part of open land they had. But they had five other buildings: they had a barn on the property, they had two little buildings down by Harbor Brook, where they took the timber down to Harbor Brook at high tide, floated it out. The Chebacco tells how they floated the timber over to Southwest Harbor and marketed it over there. Out of this little sunken garden, they also cleared land way back behind the property my parents owned, which is now part of the Land and Gardens Preserve. There’s a path that goes up from our property through the preserve, to the carriage paths—it’s a very natural path—and you can actually see on that path the furrows of the ploughs that still remained. Even though there are thirty-foot pine trees back there, and other trees, there are these long straight furrow lines going east to west across the property, where it once had been a potato field and now is a forest. That all came out of this sunken garden.

ES: And can you tell us how old you would have been in the summer of 1973?

BP: I’m not sure I want to tell you that! I was twenty-one. The other thing I did that summer was build a little cabin, about fifty feet to the west of this sunken garden, here. We do call this sunken garden—and the painting is the same garden—the Snakepit. Not the most pleasant name. But snakes do like to live in the crevices of the rocks.

ES: I bet it’s very warm.

BP: It’s warm. And very often, in the spring—I usually come up in April—when things are beginning to thaw, you’ll see snakes lying on top of the foundation, because it is warm.

ES: I’m asking the question because it sounds like such an adventurous summer project for a twenty-one year-old. Can you tell us more about the state of the foundation at that time?

BP: Sure. The painting and the photograph show flowers, in a spot that’s been dug out, and you can really get a sense of the structure that it had been. When we, in 1973, started to excavate this, all you could see were some of the top rocks and maybe one or two layers down. The rest had long grass over it. You could also see some metal parts, but as we pulled things out, there were broken bottles and an old car, as I said. There were a couple of tires, too. It took a lot to excavate this. We did have to have the foundation fortified, or rebuilt—particularly on the easterly side. There are some steps going down here, from behind. There’s another foundation, another one of these buildings, in its current fallen-in state, closer to Harbor Brook and the road. Over almost two hundred years, a lot happens, both naturally and unnaturally, as people throw junk into holes to get rid of it.

ES: Do you have any idea what might have happened in those two hundred years, when the building was disused?

BP: I don’t know, Eloise. My parents have owned the property since 1969, which still leaves around one hundred and sixty-nine years. There was a different family called Edwin Abbott, which owned [the property] according to the Colby and Stewart map from [1885]. I have not looked up to see who Edwin Abbot was. But he’s who’s listed as the owner at that time. The driveway off of the Northeast Harbor-Seal Harbor road, Peabody Drive, which goes up to my parents’ and my property, was always there. It was just a dirt path for wagons and such, and we didn’t have to do anything to recreate the driveway. It did go all the way back up into the potato field, and that potato field—now grown over—was used for woodcock hunting. Woodcock like the alder bushes that were in the back, and there was a certain kind of trap that was used to catch woodcocks. Every now adn again, I trip over one, because it’s kind of a round wire circle. So the property has had a lot of interesting use, and certainly we’ve loved it for the past fifty years. It’s certainly my spiritual home. But what happened to it… Mr. Rockefeller owned it, probably, since the 1920s, until 1969, when my father bought it. What happened to it from 1804 to 1920, I can’t really tell you other than that the family named Abbott was there at one point, too. But it’s a lovely piece of property, as so many in Maine are. And this foundation—the Snakepit—is a much-cherished place in our family. And if you want to come over to our place to help dig out a second one, you’re welcome anytime!

ES: Snakepit II?

BP: Snakepit II, there we go!

ES: You’ve mentioned that the foundation had to be rebuilt—did the original stones make it into the new walls?

BP: Yes, all the stones are original. What happened was that the walls, because of winter and ice, became waterlogged and the ice pushed the stones out. Most of the stones had just caved in, but they where all there. It was the easterly wall which suffered the most; the other three were pretty good. The stones may not be on that easterly all exactly the way that they were in 1802, but the other three walls are pretty accurate. And the stones that were used to recreate the easterly wall are all original stones, no doubt about that—we didn’t have to find any more, they all just fell in. The right number were there, you just had to find a way to recreate it. Trying to envision how a family lived—it’s deep, about four feet deep. To know how big a family was there, and how they lived… it’s a beautiful spot because it’s below a little ledge, which protects it from the north winds. It faces south, so you’ll get the sunshine on it—when the sun shines—so it’s warm, protected, with fresh water out of Harbor Brook and access to ocean in that same brook, going out to Bear Island. So, you can fish, you can farm… there are old apple trees on this property, too, which I counted last year. there are twenty-seven varieties of apple, really old trees that had not been cared for in years. Whether they were the Smallidges, I doubt; Abbott, maybe. If so, they’ve been around a long time. But they’re all over the property, which was really a working farm, between timber, fishing, farming, apples. And it all really centered out of these two houses, right near Harbor Brook and this particular sunken garden.

ES: I have one more question, which is about the provenance of the painting—or it looks like a pastel?

BP: It is.

ES: Can you tell me who made it?

BP: Somebody who knew it was called the Snakepit. It’s really interesting, and I appreciate that question, because there’s a D. on the painting but I don’t know who D is. You could interpret it as D. D.—two D’s, there. We have another painting of the Snakepit in the house at Harbor Brook, that’s a much bigger painting. It’s done by a painter named Edie Wright, out of Isleford, who does a lot of pastels and watercolors. But who this D. D. is, I don’t know. I asked some family members, but they didn’t know either. It looks a little bit like Edie Wright’s work, but that’s not he signature. We’ll have to find out who D. or D. D. is, and I don’t see any other name on it.

ES: But it would have been made, judging by the state of the vegetation…

BP: Since, probably, 1975. That’s certainly the look of it today. I almost brought the watering can, too, because we have that.

ES: Well, thank you so much for sharing that story with us today.

BP: Thank you for listening.