Welcome to the Vassalboro Historical Society

Traveling Back and Forth in Time:

Priest Hill Road - Part 2

by Esther Bernhardt

What a beautiful day for our second excursion along Priest Hill Road! I am so glad to have so many of you interested in taking this trip. We will begin today at the farm of Elisha and Mary Burgess (#401), on the west side of the road. (This is where I now live, and although I have not always lived here I was born here in 1937.) The Burgesses, who by all indications were the original owners and builders, are buried in the Priest cemetery at the bottom of Priest Hill. Mary was 52 when she died in 1875. Elisha was the school agent in 1859-60; he died in 1886 at age 75.

The Burgess house stood on a half-cellar, dug by hand. A large rock from the cellar is all that remains of the house after it burned. As a child I was never allowed in the cellar, but my brothers often went to fetch food items stored there for Mama. One time Alan was sent to get a few apples from on the rock. He was warned to watch out for the mousetraps. Soon there was a loud yelp, and up he came with no apples, but a mousetrap clung to his hand, holding several fingers. When I built a new house here, Carroll Bragdon asked if I wanted the rock on my lawn. Of course I said yes, and it’s now part of my flower bed.

                                                                      Wolf Rivers!

 Standing: Flora Taylor Gidney, Esther Canham

Sitting: Edwin Canham, Stanley White, Alan Canham

The next owner was John Averill. My father always referred to this property as the Averill farm. Mr. Averill married the mother of my great-grandmother. My great-grandmother’s name was Abigail Farnsworth; she grew up and lived here till she married Edwin Taylor, whom we have already met. Abigail had a half-sister named Ina Averill, who resided in Vassalboro all her life. I met her once. I think she lived on Cemetery St. She never married.

The next person to own this property was Ralph Canham. I do not know if he lived here or not. He sold it to my father, Loring, who did live here, and here I was born. My brothers were born in North Vassalboro. I loved growing up here. The wolf rivers [apples] were fun to eat, and blackberries and raspberries and wild strawberries made such yummy desserts, as long as I didn’t eat too many while picking. It was fun to be out with my older brothers picking on warm summer days.

My son David, who now owns the land, has reintroduced this apple, as the old orchard no longer produced anything.

My father, who worked in the dye house for the American Woolen Co., was poisoned from the dyes and could no longer earn his living this way. Having grown up farming under the tutelage of his grandfather, Edwin Jesse Taylor, he decided he would be a farmer again and needed more land and barns. Therefore, when I was seven our family moved down the road to the big Amos Taylor farm, loading our belongings on the hayrack.  

Breakable items and other special things my Grammy Tracy brought in her Plymouth.

Father sold the “Averill farm” to George and Eunice Cole; she was a Cooper. The couple had no children. He was a pleasant man with a good mil job, but he was an alcoholic He would drink and smoke in bed, and consequently he burned up nearly every house he ever lived in, and my birthplace was no exception. After this they moved into the chicken coop, which is shown in my previous article on Priest Hill (Vol. IX, No. 4, Winter 2010-2011). Eunice was quite talented and made the coop pleasant enough till he burned it down as well. She was a nice woman who, I feel, lived a difficult life. She loved flowers and planted them everywhere, even in back of the house where no one would see them, giving the neighbors something to chew over. Her plantings live on in my beds and in my children’s gardens. She left a wonderful gift to this area. One 4th of July my parents included the Coles in our annual trip to the coast. We stopped into Perry’s Nut House, and that was the one time I saw her enjoy herself. She was standing in front of a mirror that makes one look distorted. She stood there for some time in several different poses, laughing hysterically. I remember my mother and myself laughing right along with her. She was older than my Mom. I was a child, but I remember it being a nice day. After the chicken coop burned they moved, and my father and Alfred choosing the lower fields, my father the higher part. Rick Breton owns the field across from his place where the chicken coop was and the field behind that. My son, David Bernhardt, owns the piece where my house stands and the other forty acres. He built his home here 21 years ago. Now we are up to date, and we can again go back in time.

With the horses and wagon ready for our journey, please admire the breathtaking foliage across the field on George Taylor’s property. I do think it is the most gorgeous in all of Central Maine and will be for years to come. We will have tea and cakes at the schoolhouse; I have them packed in the “noonin” basket. The rest of the homes on this part of the road, past what is now Lemieux’s Orchard, are all Priest homes, and many more of them no longer exist. There are some cellar holes still visible, and rocks and trees mark the lots. First we will cross the road and drop in on Sullivan Bray Priest.

While we are on our way over to Sullivan’s home, I will fill you in on how the Priest family came here. The first was Jonas, and he was an early Vassalborough settler.

From the Vassalboro Register, 1904:

            Jonas Priest was the first to cut his way from the river [Kennebec] to Priest Hill; there he started his homestead, where his grandson Theodore W. Priest now resides. He came from Groton, Mass. in 1775. In 1795 he received a grant of two hundred acres from the proprietors. his first hut was on the stream which flows through the homestead farm, which he obtained under conditions as was then necessary.

He was 33 years old when he came to Maine. He built the house where the Lemieux family lives today. Jonas’s wife was Martha Durant. They were married in Billerica, Mass. in 1769. They had nine children: Martha, Jonas, Rhoda, Josiah, Lois, Anna, Abraham, Reuben, Rebecca. The birthdates indicate that the first three were born in Massachusetts. They are buried in the Priest Cemetery: Martha died in 1812, aged 83; Jonas in 1831, at 87.                                                                   

Now here we are at Sullivan Priest’s. There are gorgeous fields here, on high ground, and from here one can view the beauty of this area for some distance. Bray, as he is known, was named for a well-documented clergyman, Sullivan Bray. “Bray” Priest was born in 1821, the son of Jonas’s son, Josiah. He is a farmer and married Lois Elder; they have five children. He will die in 1916 and be buried in North Vassalboro village cemetery. One of his brothers, Daniel Priest, lives past the school on the hill; we will visit there later. The kitchen has a Dutch oven; it takes up much space, and I don’t know of anyone who used it, but when I was a kid, it fascinated me. The Greens, who will live here later on, will have it removed. Behind the house is a marvelous yellow delicious apple tree. As a child I had at least one every season. Even though it does still produce some fruit, it is old and gnarled. (The present owner, Jane Pronovost, tells me that my son David has grafted from this tree: the "deliciousness" will live on.) When Lena Upham and Ora Kyle marry, they will live here. Lena is the granddaughter of Daniel Priest. They will have one son, Herbert, named after his grandfather, Bert Upham; he will die at fifteen.  He is a contemporary of my father’s, and I remember he spoke of him in a sad way -- missed his friendship. In later years the Kyles will move to East Vassalboro and live in the house on the curve in South Stanley Hill Rd., where the DeMerchants live today.  Then they will move to Florida.  They will be buried in the Methodist cemetery in East Vassalboro with their son.

Next, a couple from California will live here, when I am 3 or 4 years old.  They will not stay long.  She is a lovely thing and I assume she is too lonely. Then the Greens, Viola and Olan, will move in.  They will be a big part of our lives for many years. There is no need for locked doors, and Olan Green will never go to Cates's Store without entering our home, finding someone and asking if we need anything from the store. In later years they will downsize to a trailer on the three-cornered piece just above the cellar hole of I Priest, which is still visible.  They will sell most of the farm to Jack and Jane Pronovost, the present-day owners.

It must be time for refreshment, which we will partake of when we reach the school. The map indicates the Priest Hill School is located on the west side of the road, in the field now owned by Abbott White (there is some confusion).  It was a one-room schoolhouse, and from all accounts it only needed one teacher, however much the enrollment differed from term to term.  One entry says teachers were paid by the number of students they had. Teachers were usually unmarried women. From the Vassalboro Register 1904, "Schools"

The town of Vassalboro has ever stood out boldly and faithfully for the support and maintenance of her schools. In 1790 the town was divided into nine districts.  The committee making this division was composed of Reuben Fairfield, Charles Webber, Nehemiah Getchell, Daniel McFadden, Joseph Fellows and John Taber. Alterations were made in the bounds of districts as the convenience of the inhabitants demanded. In 1799 $1,000.00 was raised to build 10 school houses.  In 1839 was the division of the town made into 22 districts.  From a town committee to hire teachers and visit schools the town voted a proper person [titled agent of district # ...] in each district to do the duties of his district. 

Our Priest Hill School is District #6.  Many of the agents through its years of existence bear familiar names along this road: Taylor, Averill, Burgess, and Priest.  The entries in the town reports are very interesting, keeping townspeople informed.  In the school year 1860-61 the whole number of scholars was 1,200.  Today we have at the consolidated Community School 432 students, and approximately 200 in various high schools.  Both numbers vary a little from year to year, as was the case in the mid-1800s. The cost at that time was $2,283.68: $1,900 raised by the town and $383.68 received from the State. 

There were usually two terms, summer and winter.  Some of the same problems we face in educating our children today had to be considered and worked out back then as well, like building new schools, upkeep, and hiring teachers each term.

In 1873-74 Agent #6, Harrison Taylor, wrote,

May A. Bussell, teacher, one term only.  Miss Bussell is quite young, with but little experience as a teacher.  She labored hard for the success of her school but not with entirely satisfactory results.  A teacher of more years and experience is needed here.

There were textbooks to choose, and in 1882-83 wall maps were being considered. Some issues were being suggested, such as religion and consolidation that are still controversial today. In 1872-73 D.C. Perkins, Supervisor of Schools suggested the following:

Christianity and morality are the foundation stones of society, but they are wholly neglected in our public schools.  Would it not be well for our children to be instructed there as well as elsewhere in the duties they owe to God, their neighbors and themselves?

 In the year 1887-88, the Supervisor, E.H. Cook, reported the following:

The prosperous condition of nearly all the schools this past year makes the task of reporting them a pleasant one.  There have been 44 terms of school during the year; nine have been taught by male and thirty-five by female teachers; twenty-nine of these terms have been taught by male and thirty-five by female teachers; twenty-nine of these terms have been taught by Vassalboro residents. In hiring teachers, would it not be wise to give residents of Vassalboro the preference in all cases where it can be done without injury to the interests of the school?  The great defect in the school system of our town is the fact that there are too many school districts.  By uniting the districts so as to reduce the number nearly one-half, pupils could have double the schooling with better teachers.

There are half a dozen school houses in town which are only worth about three dollars and eighty-seven cents apiece.  We suggest that the town ought to own the school houses instead of the districts, as in that case no school house would be likely to be so poor as to be a disgrace.  It is also recommended that the town furnish text-books.  For more good advice I would refer you to former reports.

Here we are already.  The year is 1875.  I choose this year because I liked what Agent Albert Priest submitted about the teacher, Miss Abbie Taggart:

Miss Abbie Taggart, teacher.  This was Miss Taggart’s first school; and as a proof that she gave good satisfaction, I offer the fact that not one scholar was absent during a term of 11 weeks.  Miss Taggart, with age and experience, will make a first-class teacher.

I dropped in on her the other day, and she was delighted in that we were coming.  She said she would have hot water ready for tea. While we enjoy cakes and tea I’ll share a few entries from this school.  If this whets your appetite you can read more in the Town Reports of yesteryear.

1894-95 -- No agent listed, but the report stated,

We had a spring term of 11 weeks, taught by Miss Annie C. Priest.  This was a very small school, but Miss Priest worked hard to interest her pupils.  She did as well as we expected with the small number she had to work with.  The school was combined in the fall and winter with district #7.  I have heard of no dissatisfaction with the change.  

Then the entries for District #6 ceased.   

1859-1860  Elisha Burgess, Agent:

 "Olive W. Nichols, instructress of the summer term, had previously a good reputation as a teacher, and fully sustained it in her connection with this school. She accomplished

a great amount of labor, having a full somewhat crowded school, with a variety of classes, capacities and dispositions.  The examination was very good.

1869-70    Gustavus Priest, Agent:

Summer Term -- Nellie M. Nowell of Vassalboro.  This school was much smaller than in former years – yet we think the teacher manifested a good degree of interest in the few scholars who attended.  The inspection at the close indicated good improvement.

Length of term 8 weeks.

Winter Term -- Phoebe Burgess of Benton.  At our first visit we saw indications of a successful school, as it was evident that the teacher was an earnest worker.  The closing inspection realized all we anticipated.  It was evident that while the teacher had been efficient the pupils had endeavored to do their best.

Length of term 16 weeks.

1891-92 Bray Priest, Agent:

Miss Mary E. Earl was engaged to teach the spring term.  At our first visit we found everything favorable for a successful term.  At my last visit I found only one scholar present.

Winter term taught by Maud Fletcher of China, who having taught this school before knew where to begin and I believe did good work..  Having been notified when the school would be closed I went there, but found the house closed, owing to the sickness of the teacher.

In 1893 this field was purchased by Byron Priest from Fred Priest, for $300, to be paid within one year.  Thus it was known as the Byron Place.  As far as is known, however, Abbott White was the first to build a home here.

Well, we must pack up and move on.  Our next stop will be the home of Daniel Priest, where we will find many interesting events happening.

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