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A Brief History of Dixfield, Maine

Text by Charlotte Collins
Images from Dixfield Historical Society

Following the Revolutionary War, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts needed to raise money to pay off its huge war debts. The Committee of the State of Eastern Lands became the vehicle for veterans to obtain new lands in the Province of Maine (then owned by Massachusetts). Land speculators swarmed all over Maine surveying its natural resources. They plotted access to the Boston markets through Maine’s rivers and ports. By 1782, for example, Reuben Colburn from Pittston, the same Reuben Colburn who had built the leaky bateau for Benedict Arnold’s ill-fated assault on Quebec City in 1775, joined with several others to explore northwestern Maine. On the top of their list was to see if it was possible to build a road from the headwaters of the Connecticut River to the Kennebec. Years later their efforts turned into the Coos Road, running from northern Vermont down the Androscoggin and Sandy River valleys to Hallowell.

A Revolutionary Was soldier, Col. Jonathan Holman of Sutton, Massachusetts, had heard reports and was spurred on to explore what would become the Town of Dixfield. He successfully raised a company of citizens from the Sutton area who also were interested in this enterprise. To a large extent, these men were from the same families who had fought with him during the French and Indian Wars in 1759 and again in putting down Shay’s Rebellion just the year before.

Col. Jonathan Holman, Deacon Asa Waters and Capt. Andrew Elliott, all of Sutton, Massachusetts, spent a considerable amount of time in August and September of 1787 in exploring land suitable to the establishment of a township. They could not, however, obtain the purchase of it until July 2, 1789, when Col. Holman “paid earnest toward it, for himself and others.”

All were from Worcester County, Massachusetts and each paid his one, two or more 60ths of the costs. The price for the land which would become Dixfield was: 2,895 pounds, 11 shillings and 5 pence, plus expenses incurred of 136 pounds, 12 shillings and 5 pence. “The Early History of Dixfield” states that at one of the earliest town meetings held at Sutton, Massachusetts in April, 1791, the proprietors voted:

that four Rights shall be obliged to clear and seed 20 acres, set up a house
18 feet square, have 50 living apple trees on the land within six years from
the first of this month, or to forfeit to the Proprietary 50 acres on each Right.

Other directives were initiated and soon settlers began to arrive, forming three distinctive sections within Township No. 1 called Holmantown. They were Dixfield Common or Center, East Dixfield, and Dixfield Village. Upon its incorporation on June 21, 1803, these three sections grew into very diverse parts of the new community now called the Town of Dixfield. Each was a small community unto itself, but offering skills, talents, and spiritual brotherhood that benefitted their neighbors within the town as well as to those settling in nearby, newly established communities. With its incorporation, Dixfield became the 147th town in the State of Maine.

The First Section to be Settled

Even in absentia, the influence of Col. Jonathan Holman was felt throughout the town. His sons settled in that part called the Common, and its location approximated the center of the township. An old saying by the locals states that there is a rock located somewhere on the Peter Holman property that designates the exact center of town.

Beginning with the first town meeting held at the home of Levi Newton, and then shortly after at the home of Peter Holman, town affairs were conducted here. Dixfield citizens traveled from all points of the town to hold a day-long gathering to vote on important elected positions of the town and to discuss the building of roads. Selectmen, Town Clerk, and Tax Collector, Bondsmen, Road Surveyors, Hog Reaves and other positions were elected to see that the town would be on stable footing for the coming year. Women did not have the right to vote at that time, so the men conducted the meetings and were elected to all offices. The women and children provided hearty meals at the meetings.

Waits, Whites, Newmans, Delanos, Tainters, Newtons, Fosters and Kenneys lived alongside the Holmans and contributed to the area’s agricultural life. The Holmans with their large land holdings at the center of town predominated, however. Even today many of the town’s people take special pride in claiming the Holmans as their ancestors. Peter Holman’s legacy lives on through his great-grandsons, Peter and Robert, great-granddaughter Geraldine and others who have generously shared information about the old lore of the land.

Col. Jonathan Holman was a frequent visitor to Holmantown to “visit his boys down in Maine.” According to the History of the Town Sutton, Massachusetts by the Reverends W. Charles Benedict and Hiram Averill Tracy (1878), he always rode in the saddle, and his rule was to ride seventy miles a day. He had a powerful, high-sprited horse which he called his “War Horse” which was never broken to harness and could be managed by none but himself. At the age of seventy-five years old, he could vault into the saddle as lightly as a boy!

In addition to agriculture, Holmantown pioneers raised cattle, sheep and small farm animals and supplemented food supplies from the wild lands that surrounded their farms. Hunting wild game and trapping were also important jobs for daily survival. Berrying in the summer was an annually awaited event. According to local historian Ruth Kidder:

Often the team was harnessed and the wagon filled for a trip to White Cap in neighboring Rumford. This was the most famous berrying place around and bushels of berries were harvested there each summer. The pastures behind Kenneth Newman and Bernard Kidder were locally famous blueberrying spots, as were the Sugar Loaves. From the start of the strawberry season, through blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, the women were busily filling every container.

Today the Common is mostly considered rural living with few agricultural establishments. Although not considered the center of town, its residents still raise a healthy voice in all town affairs and guard the esthetic and historical value of the land. Peter Holman and his wife Mercy (Knight) are buried in the Holman Cemetery that can be reached by crossing private land of Holman descendants on the Common Road. The large slate headstone is engraved with a willow tree and an epitaph and reads:

Peter Holman
Born October 16, 1769 in Sutton, Massashusetts
Married Mercy Knight of Peru, Maine in 1796
Died October 30, 1829 at Dixfield at the age of 60

The Next Section to be Settled

East Dixfield is a village within Dixfield that is divided by a common county line running through it. Years ago, one of the homes was built with the county line running through the livingroom. Whenever East Dixfield is mentioned, people think of the village as a whole, even though some residents live in the Town of Wilton (Franklin County), while others live in Dixfield (Oxford County). The East Dixfield Post Office has been moved four times--twice to the Dixfield side of Main Street and twice to the Wilton side where it is located in 2013.

The rolling hills of East Dixfield still resonate today with the names of the early settlers such as Severy, Morse, Hannaford, Walker, Hiscock, and Science Hill. Most are named after homesteaders who settled the hilly land. Science Hill, however, was so-called because of the many creative inventors who seemed to attract patents like honey attracts bees. Tradition holds that Aaron Severy, who felled the first tree in the area, learned that he had a new neighbor only by hearing the sound of an axe on a distant hill. It was Osgood Walker, and the hill became named for this family.

Some of the inventors living in the Town of Dixfield during its early history include Leonard Norcross and his Diving Armour, patented June 14, 1834; John J. Towle and his Combined Foot-Warmer and Lantern, patented June 8, 1880; and Henry O. Stanley and his Rangeley Spinner, late 1800s. From East Dixfield the Apple Cutter, Patented October 20, 1857 and the Apple Corer, Patented April 6, 1869, were designed by Nathaniel Thomas. R.S. Morse applied for a patent for a “Cabbage Slicer” and received one on May 24, 1870 for his “favorite” Washtub Agitator. Our ancestors were industrious with true American entrepreneurial spirit!

Apples were viewed as the crop that would allow East Dixfield farmers to thrive and many farmers planted apple trees. East Dixfield became known by its quantity of apples dried annually, led by Cyrus and Warren Severy and the inventions of Nathaniel Thomas. The Coolidges, Halls, Lelands, Kings, Wheelwrights and Townsends were among the families living there. Ruth Kidder wrote: The “Year With No Summer-1816" caused the men to hoe and harvest with mittens on or the frost stuck their hands to the tools. Just a little wheat was raised and a few potatoes. Many stories have been told about that difficult year. It snowed sometime during every month.

Today, East Dixfield is truly a sleepy, little hamlet within the Town of Dixfield. Three cemeteries are located there: the Severy Hill Cemetery, Eddy Cemetery (an old family plot) and the Science Hill Cemetery. These cemeteries honor many war veterans and some of our founding ancestors. Although Science Hill and Eddy Cemeteries require a four-wheeler ATV to gain access, during the summer of 2012, an Eagle Scout project refurbished the Science Hill Cemetery by building new steps, removing brush, and uprighting and cleaning old stones. The town was very grateful for the many hours volunteers spent on this old piece of history.

To negotiate the heavily forested hills, roads were built to accommodate a stage line that connected East Dixfield with Dixfield Common, thence to the Village. Horses pulled the stage over roads that are closed today. Bowery Corner, an old intersection connecting various roads in the Severy Hill area, put up horses overnight en route to Dixfield Village, and a tavern and school were once located there. In 1860 the folks on Severy Hill built a huge cart body and put it on four cart-wheels with 12 yoke of oxen, with all the people they could pile on to it, and drove to Dixfield Village. Jonathan Waite was at the head of it when the cart arrived in the Village. Jonas T. Severy ran the hotel and furnished the rum and raffled off a white horse at $1/ticket. It was said that a hot time in the old town was had that night.

East Dixfield’s history has been long-forgotten by most until recent years with the addition of new people from a new generation who have shown a great interest in this vital part of the town’s history. The people in this section of town continue to enlighten us with many old stories that are once again making their mark–just as the many inventors of Science Hill did so long ago.

The Last Section to be Settled

From its inception in the early 1800s, Dixfield Village was destined to become the population and commercial center of the town. The largest landowner, Dr. Elijah Dix (for whom Dixfield is named) of Boston, was authorized to build the first grist mill, the first saw mills and develop the water power that flows out of Lake Webb, down Webb River, and enters at its confluence with the Androscoggin River in Dixfield.

Agriculture played a part in the development of this section of town, too. Scattered farms were located just “above the hill” going towards Carthage and Weld. Joseph Mitchell and his wife “Aunt Hannah” Dillingham settled on the farm through which this brook runs about 1802. A woman of strong character, many stories are told of her sayings and doings. The brook which bears her name was once the water supply for the Town of Dixfield. The upper Weld Street area, which had very few houses until around 1942, was fairly flat. The wind swept fiercely across these plains before buildings and trees obstructed it progress. It was the most impassable section between Weld and Dixfield in winter, according to older residents. Dixfield was not exempt from sickness or disease during its early days. In 2010 the Dixfield Historical Society acquired over thirty diaries from the former Nelson Rose farm, located near Aunt Hannah’s Brook. One entry laments:

1865: I went to Mr. E. Brackett’s to take care of a sick child–diptheria. Little Carrie very sick indeed. Dr. Bartlett glad I came. Very sick and growing worse. Mrs. Park sat up in the evening; Mrs. White came and watched. Carrie so sick and suffering so much. We sent for Dr. B.; she died at one. I arranged the clay cold form and laid down and then came home to get some articles to make a mantle robe. I put little Carrie in the coffin–so innocent and pure. Rev. Mr. Cummings spoke very well.

Once these building blocks were put in place, the Village’s southern and western borders were assured that they would join other settlements along their banks in developing the new frontier. Webb River would prove invaluable to the wood industry sporting many a “log drive” in its heyday. Soon Mr. Graves built a tannery, called by the villagers the “bark mill.” It prospered for many years under both Graves and Hosea Austin before Charles W. Forster turned it into the foundation of his burgeoning toothpick industry, soon followed by N.S. Stowell and his three spool factories in Dixfield and a half-dozen or more in surrounding towns.

Dixfield attracted the best talent in the legal system, with Attorney Isaac Randall, a master of turning out distinguished legal talent and whose influence extended to both the state’s and the nation’s capitols. Future politicians who taught in Dixfield include Congressman Samuel P. Morrill, Congressman and Senator Eugene Hale, Maine Governor Samuel Streeter Marble, attorney Elbridge Gerry Harlow, trial justice John Mason Eustis and future governor of Oregon LaFayette Grover. The intersection of Weld and Main Streets became the hub for commercial development. The National House hosted Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi while the Stanley Hotel provided the town with valuable shops, meeting spaces, dry goods stores and a barber shop. The Tuscan Opera House was built in 1891. This building offered the town a venue for summer plays, silent movies, dances, town meetings, school functions, and the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs meeting hall.

Dixfield has been the home to many doctors, earning great respect from the community. Although we no longer have a doctor on the town’s list of residents, we offer a very accomplished staff at the Dixfield-Elsemore Clinic, named after one of our beloved physicians.

Today (in 2013) the seat of the town’s government and town affairs resides at the Dixfield Town Office on Main Street. This building was made possible by a large gift from the Torrey family and also houses the town’s Post Office. Voting has been moved from the fire station to the Dixfield Legion Swasey-Torrey Post No. 100 building. Our schools are thriving and have proven to be among the best in the state. Although our farms have declined, the Board of Selectmen recently endorsed the state’s efforts in the promotion of farming throughout the state. Dixfield Village has evolved into the focal point of the town, but continues to be very much influenced by our neighbors on the Common and in East Dixfield.


Dixfield Historical Society Archives and Artifacts

Peter Stowell, DHS Historian

DHS Members

Marjorie Hall Bryant Papers, courtesy Mr. and Mrs. Clayton Laplant

Jed Beach, Thesis “Outside Eden”, 2003

Ruth Kidder Papers, DHS Coll.#139

"Bicentennial Calendar", information from DHS Archives, 2003

Rose Family Diaries, DHS Coll.#122, 1874-1946

Town of Dixfield Records

"The Early History of Dixfield Maine", DHS and Dixfield Bicentennial Committee, 1976

George J. Varney, "A Gazetteer of Maine", 1881