Preacher. Farmer. Scientist. Cabinet maker. Architect. Naturalist. Mathematician. Cobbler. Painter. Surveyor. Clockmaker. Writer. Linguist. Philosopher.
Being able to call yourself any one of the things on that list would be enough for most people, but for Jonathan Fisher, by both necessity and interest, he managed to adopt them all.
Who was Jonathan Fisher? His name might be pretty obscure these days, but 200 years ago, he was one of the most important figures in eastern Maine, specifically the Blue Hill Peninsula. Posted to the town in 1796 as a Congregationalist minister, Fisher became one of the leading figures in the development of the region, whose influence is still felt today.
The house he built two centuries ago is still standing in Blue Hill, filled with things Fisher made himself — from a fully functional camera obscura, to handwritten philosophical and scientific musings. It’s now known as the Jonathan Fisher House, a museum open three days a week during the summer, and by appointment.
“He was kind of a Thomas Jefferson sort of figure, or like a Ben Franklin. Harvard educated, really skilled at a lot of different things, really curious about the natural world,” said Samantha Curtis, the lead docent at the Jonathan Fisher House. “He really valued education.”
Among the many things he did for the town, Fisher helped found the high school that would later become George Stevens Academy. He founded the Blue Hill Public Library. He co-founded Bangor Theological Seminary. He also spoke five languages and had a working knowledge of the Penobscot language, he wrote scientific papers, he advocated for the abolition of slavery, he was a painter using paint and brushes he made himself, he designed and built furniture and he developed his own form of shorthand writing and his own phonetic alphabet.
In short, he was a renaissance man — albeit a deeply pious, often taciturn and, by reports from his time, sometimes rather grumpy renaissance man.
“He would line up students at the school and grill them on the Bible. If people saw him coming through the town, they’d straighten up,” said Curtis. “He was a bit intimidating.”
Fisher was born in 1768 in New Braintree, Massachusetts, the son of a Revolutionary War soldier who died of “camp fever” (a.k.a. typhus) during the war. Raised by his uncle, Fisher was already a skilled carpenter by the time he was a teenager, but it became clear he would benefit more from a college education, rather than going into the trades. At age 20, his family sent him to Harvard, where he pursued a divinity degree.
After graduating from Harvard in 1794, Fisher was offered several different positions as a Congregationalist minister: in the Boston area, or in Blue Hill, which was then a remote outpost on the Maine frontier.
Fisher, an ardent Calvinist in the tradition of his Puritan forefathers, chose Blue Hill, far away from the comfortable life of a creative intellectual.
“As a Calvinist, he felt he should suffer,” said Curtis. “He wasn’t supposed to choose the easy place.”
Nevertheless, Fisher, upon arriving in Blue Hill, brought his intellectual and creative pursuits with him. He rapidly became arguably the most important man in town — not only as the pastor at the First Congregational Church, but as a true jack of all trades to the townsfolk.
The Jonathan Fisher House is filled with examples of the things Fisher made. The house itself, for example, was built by Fisher, though the original 1796 two-room structure was torn down in the late 19th century. The 1814 addition, also built by Fisher, is still standing, as is the 1890s addition built by his descendents, built on top of the original 1796 foundation. Another addition, built in the 1970s, houses a climate-controlled gallery, as well as the museum’s offices.
Walking through the 1814 house and adjacent gallery, it’s easier to ask what wasn’t made by Fisher than what was. The writing desk in the bedroom? Fisher built it. Those shoe forms, used to build shoes for his family? Made by Fisher, as were the shoes. Cabinets and closets built into the walls were constructed by Fisher — in the early 19th century, any space with four walls was considered a room and was therefore taxable, so Fisher cleverly built his closets with three walls to avoid paying taxes.
“You might call him a cheapskate, but it’s probably nicer to say he was thrifty. He kept a record of every penny he ever spent,” said Fisher. “He didn’t make very much money as a minister, so he had to come up with other ways to supplement his income.”
He made hats and buttons, painted sleighs, made clocks and hand-turned bed frames, built buckets and dug wells, raised cattle and pigs and planted an orchard. He wrote for the local newspaper. In his time off, he’d travel back to Massachusetts, and buy books for himself and for people in the town — some of those books are still at the Jonathan Fisher House; others were among the first to be in the collection at the Blue Hill Public Library.
“He had to do everything. If he needed something, he learned how to do it,” said Curtis.
The paintings displayed in the house are all by Fisher. A series of self-portraits by Fisher, depicting the pastor at various points in his life, glare at museum guests. Fisher’s most well-known painting, “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village,” was made in 1824 with the assistance of a camera obscura, an early precursor to the film camera, which Fisher built to aid his painting. The painting was sold to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland a number of years ago — as the oldest surviving post-American Independence landscape view of Maine, it’s a priceless historical artifact.
Fascinated by the natural world, Fisher did detailed drawings of plants and animals, including for a book called “Scripture Animals,” a series of 140 woodcut drawings and descriptions of animals found in the Bible, written for children. His curiosity with the natural world didn’t stop with flora and fauna, either; Fisher also observed the skies through his telescope, and documented the weather and other geophysical phenomena.
Amazingly, Fisher’s studies still have resonance today. Dr. Michael McVaugh, a history professor at the University of North Carolina who volunteers in the summer as a docent at the Jonathan Fisher House, was curious if Fisher had anything to say about 1816, also known as the Year Without a Summer — the year of record cold in North America and Europe, after the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia.
Looking through Fisher’s extensive journals last year, McVaugh discovered that not only did Fisher make note of it — he made detailed drawings of sunspots through the year 1816 and into 1817, in an attempt to understand why the climate had changed so dramatically. There are no other known drawings from that era of sunspots observed in North America. Fisher’s findings were detailed in a paper published last month in the American Geophysical Union’s Space Weather journal.
“The fact that the research he did has relevance today is pretty amazing,” said Curtis.
Fisher held his position as pastor in Blue Hill for 43 years, eventually retiring in 1837; he died in 1847 at the age of 79. Most of his descendents left the Blue Hill area later in the 19th century, and his house fell into disrepair for several decades, with the doors remaining unlocked and open to anyone. Miraculously, almost nothing was stolen out of the house — furniture, paintings, books, textiles and more were left sitting as they would the last time anyone lived in the house.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that an effort was made to preserve the house, when the Jonathan Fisher Memorial, the organization that runs the museum, was founded; the house was put on the National Historic Register in 1969, and the museum officially opened in the 1970s. It’s a fairly sleepy place, even during peak summer, despite the flurry of tourist activity in the Blue Hill area.
The Jonathan Fisher House is presently open from 1 to 4 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; tours are also available by appointment, by calling 374-2459. The house is located at 44 Mines Road in Blue Hill, about 1000 feet past the rotary connecting Routes 175 and 176 and Beech Hill Road. For more information, visit jonathanfisherhouse.org.