BINGHAM, Maine — The wilds of northern Somerset County seem about as untouched as any of Maine’s northern forests, but it wasn’t always that way.
For centuries, life and business thrived along what is now called Old Canada Road, a historic thoroughfare unknown by many Mainers. The Old Canada Road Historical Society wants to share that rich history through countless donated photographs, documents, artifacts and folk histories.
With the purchase of an ornate Victorian home in Bingham, the Society has found a place to display that collection.
“The upper Kennebec Valley has a hugely important history that we want very much to make available to the public,” said Martha Sterling-Golden, one of the society’s founders. “People up there have been giving us things left and right. The community has really been a part of this.”
Six hundred years ago, the region was home to Wabanaki and Iroquois Indian tribes. Over a period of centuries, the tribes developed a network of trails and portages between the upper Kennebec River in Maine and the Chaudiere River in Quebec. Benedict Arnold and an army of 1,100 were among the first white men to see the road in a failed 1775 quest to capture Quebec.
In 1802, cattlemen north of Skowhegan — in pursuit of an urban market in Quebec that promised higher profits than they could hope for in Boston — were the first white men to build a trail through the region, according to University of Southern Maine professor Barry Rodrigue, who is preparing the release of the book “Backwoods Globalization: The Canada Road Frontier, A 500-year History.”
The state of Massachusetts, of which Maine was once a part, began its first survey of the area in 1810 with the intention of upgrading the rough thoroughfare used by cattlemen. It took until 1819 for the road to be completed. In those days, portions of it were on the west side of the Kennebec River, but the route’s path was altered for various reasons over the years. It eventually became what is known today as Route 201.
When the Canadian Civil War broke out in 1837, the road was used by military units and even some British spies, according to Rodrigue. Perhaps its most enduring influence is as a prime immigration route in both directions, bringing French-Canadian culture to Maine and numerous ethnicities to Quebec.
Old Canada Road — which in Canada is known as Old Kennebec Road, Rodrigue said — is also part of the Kennebec-Chaudiere International Heritage Corridor, which stretches from Quebec to the mouth of the Kennebec River in Phippsburg.
As the route improved, businesses ranging from blacksmithing to lumbering soon populated Old Canada Road and people followed. Rodrigue, who has been researching Old Canada Road since he was a graduate student in 1993, has helped uncover more than 300 historic sites between Solon and Saint-Georges, Quebec. Together, they’re tangible evidence that what today is mostly a lonely stretch of road once was much different.
“In the heyday for the road, in the 1800s, it was a very diverse place,” said Rodrigue. “There were a lot of people there from many different countries. We found entire vanished communities that nobody’s ever heard of today.”
They left behind machinery and tools, cellar holes and the remnants of small schoolhouses. Rodrigue and others, including retired University of Maine anthropology professor Alaric Faulkner, have been documenting those sites with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
George Pratt of Pleasant Ridge Plantation is another person interested in preserving Old Canada Road’s history. Much of what Pratt knows came from personal experiences over more than 50 years of living in the area. The 79-year-old remembers hunting with his father-in-law in the late 1940s amid the old farms that used to lie on Old Canada Road.
“Some of them were still standing back in ’47,” he said. “Since then they’ve decayed or paper companies have eliminated them because of people staying in them and they were afraid of fires.”
One time while hunting near Concord Township, just north of Bingham, Pratt found some 17-foot-tall causeways, evidence of a major road now overgrown by forest. Pratt was impressed with the construction.
“It was unreal the rock work they’d done,” said Pratt. “Things like that are so interesting and people don’t even know they exist.”
Over the past 15 years or so, Pratt has tried to conjure interest in the road by printing brochures about the sites and speaking to history buffs at library and historical society events. Pratt was describing a site and its owners at one of those events when a woman said she thought Pratt was talking about her great-grandfather. The man was blind, but knew his property well enough that he was known to walk on the wide timber framing in his barn.
“I said to her, would you like to have a copy of the information I have and she really broke right down,” said Pratt. “She didn’t know where his place was and I told her how she could walk right to it. I was glad that I could help her.”
Pratt hopes that with the Old Canada Road Historical Society’s purchase of the Pierce-Quimby House in Bingham, which will be open this summer, and the coming release of Rodrigue’s book, that the road’s history will attract some interest.
“It has come hard to get this information,” he said. “I feel bad that younger people aren’t interested. Fifteen or 20 years from now if they get interested they could never do this. The information is available now.”
Stephanie Pierce Begley, who with her sister Sterling Pierce sold the Pierce-Quimby House to the society at what was referred to as a “generous bargain sale” in a press release, said she’s pleased with what will become of the structure.
“Our home holds such fond memories of growing up in Bingham,” she said. “We are honored to have the house in which we grew up become a venue for displaying the rich and proud history of the upper Kennebec Valley.”
For more information about the Old Canada Road Historical Society or for detailed genealogical and historical data about the area, visit the society’s Web site at www.oldcanadaroad.org.