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Western Maine Foothills Region

Peru

A Brief History of Peru, Maine

Text by Bob and Shirley Dolloff
Images contributed by Peru Historical Society

The original land grant for the purchase of Township Number One, later known as Peru, was made to William Wedgery of New Gloucester, Massachusetts in 1789; Daniel Lunt of Falmouth in 1790; John Fox of Portland in 1792; in 1794 to Isaac Thompson, Joshua Eddy, and William Thompson, all of Middleborough; lastly, to James Sprout of Taunton, Massachusetts in 1796. Payments were made to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the ruling “state” at that time.

Township Number One was located about fifty miles from the New Hampshire border on the south side of the Androscoggin River and was bordered by Township Number Two (now known as Milton Plantation), Rumford, Jay, Hartford, and Sumner. It is a tradition here that Merrill Knight and Daniel Lunt, both of Falmouth, purchased the land together and shared it. However, Mr. Lunt turned his share over to his sons.

First Settlers

Merrill Knight House
Merrill Knight House
Merrill Knight's house built in 1810 is still a home in 2013,
Item Contributed by
Peru Historical Society

Merrill Knight made the first clearing in the forest during the summer of 1794, cutting trees for burning and for building, while his family remained in Falmouth. In the spring of 1795 Mr. Knight returned to his land with some workers, or two of his sons, burned some of the felled trees in preparation of a garden, and used others to build a two-story cabin with two rooms on the first floor to be used as a dwelling and a storage room upstairs.

They planted vegetables and flax for weaving, bought two beef critters, and made other preparations. In the fall of 1795 Knight returned to Falmouth to bring his wife, carrying their two-year-old son, Merrill, Jr., to their new home. Seven more sons and daughters followed them later.

They brought in and stored their vegetables, butchered one of the beef critters, and hung the flax to dry. Shortly afterward a fire broke out, apparently something near the flax causing the fire, and they lost everything except a small boat in the river. They were planning to return to Falmouth to start over again, but on their way they stopped at a neighbor’s house four miles away in Canton, where the neighbors talked them into staying with them until they could rebuild with neighbors helping.

The Knights were a family of “firsts”. They had the first clearing, the first house, the first room for Plantation meetings in their upstairs room, the first school, gave an acre of land for the first cemetery, and they were the first ferry owners.

Early Government

In 1805, riders brought official papers from Boston to Paris proclaiming the founding of Oxford County, and Paris Hill as the county seat. The inhabitants of Plantation Number One were ordered by the treasurer of the new county, Henry Rust, Esq., to assemble at a legal meeting to establish governing officers and the collection of taxes on March 23, 1812. They also needed to vote for a governor, and senators for the districts. Merrill Knight was moderator of said meeting and 20 votes were recorded. The number of votes was kept to keep track of the growing number of settlers.

At the April 1816 meeting it was voted to build a school and school wards were chosen to decide the location. It was decided to raise the new school on the Merrill Knight property. This school was also used for town business there for 25 years. Sometime in these first few years, the township became known as Partridgetown according to The Length and Breadth of Maine by Stanley B. Attwood.

When Maine became a state in 1820, plans were made for the incorporation of the town, and in 1821 the new town became Peru.

Ava Harriett Chadbourne writes in Place Names and the People of Its Towns,

"during the period while the Maine towns were developing, the South American colonies were breaking away from their respective rulers; the spirit of liberty and independence was rampant in the early part of the nineteenth century. Peru was liberated from Spanish rule on July 28, 1821, and the Peruvian independence was proclaimed on the same day. The Maine town honored the South American country by the adoption of the name Peru on its incorporation in 1821, changing its name from Partridgetown.”

New County Road

New County Road
New County Road

Item Contributed by
Peru Historical Society

A road was originally begun from the Knight’s ferry landing, leading over the hill past Knight’s house to other neighbors. In 1813 it was voted to extend this road over the mountain, past the west side of Worthley Pond, and continue southeast to the Sumner town line, which would then continue to the county seat at Paris Hill.

As with all public roads, the cost of the care of this road began to rise. By 1816 the plantation settlers raised $600 in taxes for the road. If the road was not kept in good repair, the plantation was fined by the county, which added to the tax burden.

First Liberty Pole

Mary Vaughn states in her History of the Town of Peru, Maine,

"In the days of 1812 and 1814, before the American flag was common, a Liberty Pole was the emblem of patriotism, so it was befitting that a Liberty Pole should be erected on the first lot cleared and settled in the Township, beside the first public highway, to commemorate the first schoolhouse and townhouse erected in the township."

Peru Center Ferry
Peru Center Ferry
A horse and wagon are docking at the Peru Center Ferry landinf
Item Contributed by
Peru Historical Society

The important feat of this demonstration called for a man to stand on a platform one foot square at the top of the pole, forty feet from the ground, swing his hat in the air and give the emblem of liberty a name. How to climb this smooth pole? It was decided that this feat should be accomplished by one of the first settlers of the first farm, and Adam Knight, son of Merrill, Jr. was chosen. Mr. Knight made himself fast to the pole before it left the ground and he was lifted skyward, holding the pole until it was made fast in a deep hole near the schoolhouse, at which time he acted out his part."

In all likelihood, this occurred during the celebration of becoming a town in 1821.

Schools

The number of schools grew as the population increased and spread out within the town lines. By the early 1800s there were 10 school districts and a high school.

As transportation improved, allowing the town to transport students to school, the number of schools decreased to three in 1896, then again to one, a school built in 1937 and enlarged in 1950 at a focal point in West Peru. This school held up to 244 students in grades K-8, with high school students attending schools in Rumford, Mexico, Dixfield, Canton and Bethel, the tuition being paid by the town. A small four-room school was built behind the other school, then a two-room trailer was added, all to keep up with the growing school population.

West Peru Grammar School
West Peru Grammar School
West Peru Grammar School, c.1940
Item Contributed by
Peru Historical Society

In 1991 Peru joined School Administration District 21 with Dixfield, Canton and Carthage, with all high school students attending Dirigo (Dixfield) High School.

In 2008 the West Peru Elementary School was closed and a new elementary school, entitled Dirigo Elementary, was built to house students in grades Pre-K through grade five from the towns of Canton, Carthage, Dixfield and Peru. All other students attended the middle school or Dirigo High School in Dixfield. In 2009 SAD 21 joined with Regional School Union #10 with six more towns.

The old West Peru School now houses a community center under the direction of the Friends of Peru Elementary School. The smaller school behind it is now the town offices, and the trailer is gone.

Businesses

From its inception, the little town of Peru has had many businesses, starting with stores, then sawmills and gristmills. Some of the stores had barber shops or pool parlors in them. Today there is still a sawmill in town.

The first post offices were run either from homes or stores. By the middle 1900s there were three post offices, two in stores and the third was in its own building. Today there is one large post office on Main Street that services the whole town.

A train from lower Maine and Massachusetts runs along the Androscoggin River the whole length of the town on its way to Rumford. At one time there was a spur that traveled into West Peru village to service a brick factory and other businesses. A pavilion for movies and dances, a starch factory, doctors’ offices, a rake factory, a hotel, and many other businesses came and went.

On the banks of the Androscoggin River, bounded by the railroad, stood Peru’s largest business, the factory known first as Berst Foster, Dixfield Company, later known as the Diamond Match branch of Diamond National. Since 1930 all sorts of small wooden objects were made there: round clothespins and toothpicks at first, then safety matches, ice cream spoons that came with Dixie ice cream cups, ice cream sticks, tongue depressors, candy sticks, coffee stirrers, Q-tip sticks, and so on through the years. The mill finally closed around 1990 and today stands empty.

Peru is now considered a bedroom town, mainly for the employees of the paper mill in Rumford. There are still many small businesses, often in local homes, to support other local needs in this little town of a little over 1600 people.

Sources:

History of Peru (in the County of Oxford and State of Maine) from 1789 and 1911, by Hollis Turner, printed by the Maine Farmer Pub. Co., Augusta, Maine, 1911.
A History of the Town of Peru, Maine, by Mary S. Vaughn, 1971.
Maine Place Names and the Peopling of Its Towns, by Ava Harriett Chadbourne, 1957.
The Length and Breadth of Maine, by Stanley Bearce Attwood, printed by the Kennebec Journal Print Shop, Augusta, Maine, no date listed; pages 27 and 218.