In partnership with the Maine Memory Network Maine Memory Network

Strong, a Mussul Unsquit village

A Legacy of Woods and Waters

Strong's History

Text By: Valerie Tucker

How We Got Here From There
Strong’s history, like that of many Maine towns, starts with Native American settlers. In 1780, an Indian named Pierpole moved to the area that is now Strong. His wife was Hannah Susup, and they had six children: Molly Pierpole, Molly Susup, Katie, Hannah Oppalunski, Iganoose, and Joseph Susup. No records document where he was raised, but some believe that he came from the Norridgewock tribe. One story claims he was captured by the Norridgewock tribe and was freed by Hannah, who fled with him and later married him. Other stories claim he was from the Penobscot or Androscoggin tribes. In 1793, he was one of several Indians asked to determine the boundaries of certain lands lying around the Androscoggin River listed in the Pejepscot Claim. This tribe was friendlier with the English, so historians speculated that he learned English from them. He was friendly with settlers, but his wife was not.

Strong was part of Massachusetts, and this northwestern section was called Township No. 3, First Range North of Plymouth Claim, West of Kennebec River (T3 R1 NPC WKR). As settlers moved to the area, it became known as Middletown and Readstown. William Read was one of the first settlers, coming from Nobleboro in 1784. When Read received a land grant from Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong, he reserved specific lots for individuals located in the territory or others entitled to claims. Readstown was incorporated on January 31, 1801, and was re-named for Caleb Strong, a Governor of Massachusetts.

Many settlers came from the settlements along the Damariscotta River area to this area known as the Sandy River Territory. By the end of the 18th century, townspeople asked that the area be incorporated. Governor Caleb Strong, of Massachusetts, decreed on January 31, 1801, that the town be known as Strong. The first town meeting was called to order on April 6, 1801.

Growth and Prosperity
Strong grew and prospered after the beginning of the 19th Century. Thomas Hunter built a wood mill in 1813 and a gristmill soon after. William Pottle built the first tannery. Captain William Hitchcock commanded the first military company in the area. Starting in 1822, horseback riders delivered mail to Farmington, Strong, Phillips, Kingfield, New Portland, and Anson. When a bridge was built in 1828 across the Sandy River, the stagecoaches replaced those equine mail carriers. As Strong grew, townspeople added churches and schools. Wood-fired locomotives of the Narrow Gauge Railroad brought tourists and fueled other industries, giving way only when automobiles and trucks became affordable.

Around 1880, the town experienced an industrial boom. A boot and shoe factory, a brick mill, a sawmill and a clothespin factory opened, and other businesses that followed also flourished because people had jobs and money to spend in town. In 1840, the population was listed at 1,109 residents; today, more than 170 years later, the population has changed little, with an estimated 1,200 citizens recorded in the 2012 census.

Not all Strong businesses were stores or mills. According to 1909 records, the railroad carried 70,000 passengers and 70,000 tons of freight. Farms were an important role in the town’s growth and prosperity. A good blacksmith was invaluable. A dance hall provided entertainment, as did traveling theater companies, minstrel shows and the movie theater, showing silent films accompanied by a local piano player. The town did not sell liquor but did have a beauty shop, greenhouse, garage, creamery, butcher shop, and livery stables.

A Legendary Doctor
After Strong’s first physician, Dr. John Cottle, retired in 1816, a series of doctors worked in the town. One of the most beloved was Dr. Charles Bell. The nearest hospital was in Lewiston, but Dr. Bell traveled to residences no matter what the weather. He would operate by candle or lamp light in the kitchen, if necessary.

One variation of such dedication tells of a trip to New Vineyard across Porter Lake. This was in the spring, and the ice had begun to melt. Dr. Bell was making one of his famous emergency calls, and he and the driver had to keep their feet on the dashboard to avoid the water that seeped into the sleigh. Dr. Bell performed an emergency operation, while the driver held a kerosene lamp for him. Because the two dared to take the risk, some fortunate person lived to see another day!

When he began to take cases into his own home, his wife assisted him. When mill owner Charles Forster died, his estate funded a 16-bed hospital. Doris Clark was Bell’s nurse for 18 years. In 1937, the hospital closed, and Dr. Bell began working at the first Franklin Memorial Hospital building in Farmington. Today, Strong has its own health and dental center, and the Farmington hospital continues to serve residents for more serious issues.

Schools, Social Life and Community Service
Strong offered a variety of social and service organizations, including the Gift Club, Senior Citizens Club, Aurora Grange, American Legion, Order of the Eastern Star, Freemasons, and Knights of Pythias. With a decline of industry and jobs, the population supports only a handful of these organizations today.

Support for education has never waned. Teacher Claudia Fletcher remembered that, in 1918, “I was given a key to the school building to use during of my year. I planned to open the door one-half hour before the children came. Sometimes I built a fire in a long stove, using odd pieces of discarded shovel blocks.”

Everyone used the same long-handled dipper to drink from the pail of fresh water. Students said the Lord’s Prayer, sang "America," and saluted the flag. They learned poetry and performed plays. Future school teachers could begin training as school juniors. The pay, by today's standards, was low. In 1918, teachers in charge of all eight grades, earned $10 a week, and they usually boarded with a local family. Today, MSAD 58 students from kindergarten to eighth grade attend the Strong Elementary School; they attend four years at Mount Abram Regional High School in Salem Township. Strong's alumni still gather one weekend each August.

By today’s standards, late 1800s and even early 1900s rural life may have seemed harsh and austere, but life also was less hurried. People had less, but what they had, they valued more. Although children worked hard, helping to feed the animals, bale the hay and weed the gardens, they were well-educated. After the start of the 20th century, students had less pressure to support the family farm, and education became more important. Schools added Physical Education to the curriculum and organized intramural boys’ and girls’ sports teams. Strong's first baseball team won their first nine games without a coach. Starting in the 1920s, students began to compete in intermural basketball, track, tennis, volleyball, skiing, snowshoeing, cross country, football, and soccer. The community remains very proud of its athletic teams, awards, and spirit.

Before the days of automobiles, horses were the means of transportation. People treated their horses well, and most towns had one or more livery stables. Strong had a livery stable in the center of town. Horses brought the mail from the train to the post office. Salesmen, stagecoach passengers, and lumbermen were taken to their destinations on horseback or by carriage. Drivers, the equivalent of today's taxi drivers, were expected to keep late hours and endure all sorts of bad weather.

Townsfolk rented horses to attend an evening dance, take a leisurely afternoon trip, or go longer distances for family trips or for business. The cost to rent a horse for a trip to nearby Phillips and back was $1.50. After the advent of the automobile in the early 1900s, farm children continued to travel to school by horse for many more years, but as prices for cars became more reasonable, livery stables became obsolete.

Agriculture and the Food Industry
Strong has a rich history of food production. Corn and apples were sent across the country. In April, 1871, a group of farmers organized the Sandy River Cheese Company, the first in the state. Other companies processed and distributed milk, cream, and butter, and the surplus milk was used to make cheese. The investors formed a joint stock association, with shares selling for $50 dollars each. That first year, workers produced about 15,000 pounds of cheese, which was sold mostly to Lewiston and Portland businesses for 15¢ a pound. The cheese making business generated a need for more milk, because 10 pounds of milk produced one pound of cheese. The cheese shop survived more than a decade, but the business owners struggled with the process of collecting the milk, and even faced a lack of cows to produce milk. Little is known about what happened to the company after it closed in 1882.

Some landmarks remain today. One of them is the present Beal’s General Store. In the late-1800s, this store was operated by Albert and Washington Daggett, and was known as Daggett Bros. store. Shoppers could buy a barrel of flour for the price of a cord of wood. They also sold large dried codfish, which customers would take home to hang in their cellars. In January, 1866, the store burned, but a portion was saved by a volunteer bucket brigade from the Mill Stream behind it. All the rescued goods were stored in the nearby Methodist Church, while the store was rebuilt. Today a portion of that building makes up part of Beal's General Store.

Through Sleet, Snow, and Hail.....
Communication evolved as populations grew in Franklin County towns. Two hundred years before zip codes and email, mail delivery was relatively simple and unsophisticated. Bridle paths were the only tracks for early mail carriers through the wilderness north of Augusta. The first mail route to Strong was established in 1819.

These men rode through the villages on horseback with their mailbags. Mail carriers had a pouch for each town: Strong, Kingfield, Salem, Carrabassett, Stratton, Eustis, Bigelow, Phillips, Madrid, and Rangeley. The early mailmen wore tall hats with wide bands, and as they collected letters along the way, they tucked them into those hatbands.

The first postmaster was William Read, and the post office was in his home. The post offices continued in private homes without a formal name until 1837. When the newly-named Strong Post Office moved to a three-story structure, customers would enter at the basement level from the sidewalk.

This structure remains today as a private home in the center of town. The set-up was casual by today’s standards. Letters for residents were dropped into a bin on a wheel by the first letter of a person’s last name. That person would turn the wheel to that letter, open that bin, take out his mail, and close the cover. Even after the post office began using individual boxes, no one used a lock.

At the turn of the 20th century, Postmaster Nelson Walker was also the town’s undertaker. At that time, licensing and embalming were not required, and the caskets were kept in the back room and under the building, with access through a trap door in the floor. Imagine that casual an arrangement today!

Larger deliveries came through the railroad station at the base of Norton Hill. Lucky residents might collect a box of fresh bananas and oranges in midwinter, along with their store catalogs and other commodities.

Bringing Water To The Town
Water and continuous access to it has been a community focus. Most houses had a well, but as the village grew, residents formed the Strong Water District in 1908, laying a water line from nearby Day Mountain Pond.
The Strong Water Company was created by an act of the Legislature on March 15, 1899. A corporation of seven townspeople was formed to construct and administer the system. Most of the physical labor was completed between 1904 and 1905. A few years later, the town took over the administration of the Water Company. In 1913, the townspeople voted to accept the incorporation of Strong Water District, which was created by another act of the legislature.

This quasi-municipal non-profit organization had a board of three trustees elected by the voters of the district. Since this time the District has operated under the same regulations. The town got its water through a four- inch distribution line from Day Mountain Pond, but about 30 years ago, there was a landslide at the screen chamber of the gravity feed system. After that incident, some shale lodged in the pipe, causing a partial blockage. This incident, along with increased demands to the system, required the town to consider alternative sources of water supply. ­­­For several years, they maintained a water pump at the north end of town to supply a reservoir for fire protection. After a drought lowered the level of Day Mountain Pond to a point below the dam, the town had to install a suction pump to keep water supplied to the town.

In 1975, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, and the Department of Human Services required residents to boil their drinking water. In 1979, Strong began the process of designing and building a new system, consisting of a deep well pumping station on the South Strong Road. The town added a 500,000-gallon enclosed concrete reservoir at the north end of town, with a 12-inch distribution pipe.

Getting Connected
All shareholders of the privately-owned Franklin Farmers Co-Operative Tel. Co. were responsible for repairs and keeping batteries charged, so phone lines functioned properly. When calling the operator, one had to be patient, because the person you were calling might be talking on another line. Ella Willard was one of the early telephone operators. At the age of 15, she worked five nights a week and slept on a sofa in the office. She was allowed to sleep after 11 p.m., but farmers would wake her about 5 a.m. There was a large switchboard with digits in which connecting plugs were placed. A light would come on, and the caller would say to whom he wanted to talk.

Everybody listened to everyone else's conversations on those early "party lines," but Ella was the first one to know about fires. A fire was reported to her, and she would call the fire department. When people heard the alarm in town, they would call her to ask where the fire was. Ella called elderly people every morning as a community service.

People called Ella to contact the doctor if he and his assistant were busy with patients. Ella would frequently relay his medical advice to the caller. If the doctor was available for house calls, Ella would phone to determine who was ill. She would then compile a list for the doctor to pick up at central office prior to making his rounds.

When the Somerset Telephone Company offered dial telephone service to the twelve exchanges in Somerset and Franklin counties in 1959, the era of individual community telephone service ended, ushering in convenience and an increased measure of privacy, but ending an era of intra-community connections that created a unique bond among neighbors.

Strong's Fire Department
Fires were always (and still are) disastrous and frightening events. John Rounds was an ardent crusader for the organization of a local volunteer fire department. His big problem was not downright opposition, but public indifference. In 1928, he scored the first major breakthrough after the town voted funds for the support of a Department. Chelsea Stewart was the Fire Warden at that time, and he served until 1942, when Raymond "Pete" Norris took over. Firefighters became better trained and more proficient, and equipment was modernized as funds became available. Quality volunteers have continued to serve the community, but the Department must depend, as always, on the interest and support of its citizens.

Townspeople have a lengthy history of support for their religious institutions. The history of one in particular, the Strong Methodist Church, began shortly after the American Revolutionary War. George Washington was not yet President, and Maine was still part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In 1793, the New England Conference of the Methodist Church was held at Lynn, Massachusetts, and on August 1, 1793, appointed Rev. Jesse Lee to the Province of Maine and Lynn circuits.

Lee preached first in Saco, and then Portland, and northward, until on October 15, he preached at Lowertown, which we know today as Farmington. On the following day, he arrived at the home of William Read, and he organized the first meeting with early settlers. Other ministers, including those from the Congregational Church, used the church building as they raised money to build their own church. Today, the Methodist Church remains as one of the most enduring landmarks in the center of the village.

Looking To The Future
The town has seen its wood products base disappear, but changes in the first decade of the 21st Century reflect the optimism of its residents. The Strong Elementary School was chosen as one of three in Maine named a 2005 No Child Left Behind - Blue Ribbon School, and one of 295 nationwide that was awarded the honor. Students performed in the top 10 percent in state assessment scores in both reading and math.

Geneva Wood Fuels bought the former Forster Manufacturing Inc. mill and invested $13 million to renovate the plant. Today, GWF produces premium grade hardwood pellet fuel. They employ 15 people in raw material receiving and processing, pellet production, packaging and distribution. They also help to support another 50 jobs in forest harvesting and distribution. Mt. Abram High School and four MSAD 58 schools, as well Strong town office building, have switched to pellet boilers, and the mill contributes significantly to the town's tax base.

The population has remained stable, as many new residents work at Franklin Memorial Hospital and the University of Maine's Farmington campus.