MEGenWeb Project ~ Gardiner, Maine

The Gardiner Story 1849 - 1949
Written by: Robert J. Erskine, Judge Lauren M. Sanborn, and Dr. Elmer D. Colcord
Published by The City of Gardiner, Maine 1949
Copyright 1949 by The City of Gardiner, Maine, and the Authors
It is with grateful appreciation to the City of Gardiner for allowing its inclusion into this site.


The earliest beginnings in the history of Gardiner may be said to date back to the year 1607, when a party of Englishmen made an unsuccessful attempt to colonize at the mouth of the Kennebec River (named after the Indian Chief, Kennebis). The venture was authorized by James I of England, who had granted to certain Knights, Gentlemen, Merchants, and other Adventurers of our cities of Bristol and Exeter, and of our town of Plymouth the right to trade and colonize between parallels 41 and 45, in America.

The settlers of Kennebec Valley discovered an expanse of unbroken forest inhabited by primitive natives called Indians. Years passed, during which history witnessed the conquest of the Indian hunting ground by the settling English trader and farmer. It was not a sudden conquest, since the settlers occupied the land so gradually, and the Indians were scattered and disorganized.

The relations between the Indians and the settlers were, at the beginning, amicable. Facts compel us to state that the first injustices were committed by the settlers. While the Indians sold their land freely and cheerfully, and for the merest trifles, they intended to sell only the right to hunt and fish on it. The settlers, on the other hand, assumed that they had gained clear ownership.

The City of Gardiner was founded by a resourceful Boston druggist, who was one of the principal owners of the Kennebec Purchase, known as the Plymouth Company. Dr. Sylvester Gardiner had been attracted to the Gardiner area for a number of reasons. Because of the depth of the water of the river to the point of Gardiner, he noted that Gardiner would be identified as the head of navigation. He noted, also, that this was a good location for industry. For the Kennebec was here joined by a lively stream which, for a mile or so, afforded a drop of one hundred thirty feet.

This stream was called the Cobbosseecontee after the Indian name for it, Cabbassaguntiag -meaning the place where sturgeon abound. The Indian tribe here was the Abnaki and their numbers, their wigwams and their birchen canoes were many.

Gardiner was founded, in 1754, as the plantation of Gardinerstown, or Gardinerston, as otherwise spelled. The first men whom Dr. Gardiner induced to settle here comprised a gristmill builder, a saw millwright, a house carpenter, and a wheelwright. He foresaw the opportunity of building six or eight dams by the stream, each capable of running 5,000 spindles, or six paper-mill engines.

Together with many laborers who arrived later, these settlers erected two saw mills, a fulling mill, potash factory, and a grist mill. The grist mill, only one of its kind in the area, attracted settlers from fifty miles around who, bringing their bags of corn to be ground, traveled by water in their dugouts and in the winter on snowshoes.

The first houses were built on a high bank along the Cobbosseecontee stream, to the rear of the present Commonwealth Shoe Factory. For protection from the Indians, a blockhouse was erected near the site of the present Universalist Church. From records we learn that the first white woman, Mrs. Ann Winslow, arrived with her six year old daughter, helped build her own log hut and served for years as the only midwife in the area from Augusta to Bath.

The present-day city of Gardiner may, very properly, be considered the lengthened shadow of Dr. Sylvester Gardiner. His was a clear, active mind, prompted by a high degree of business talent and initiative - qualities which were at once recognized by his associates, who made him moderator at all their meeting, and manager and executive officer of the Company.

Appropriate tribute to Dr. Gardiner hangs on the wall of the present Episcopal Church in the form of a beautiful slab of black marble, bearing the following inscription (translated in part) : Sacred to the memory of Sylvester Gardiner who, born in Rhode Island of family not obscure, studied in Paris, and practiced medicine successfully . . . in Boston. Having obtained a competency, he directed his attention to the civilization . . . of the Eastern country, then uncultivated. Here he leveled extensive tracts of forest, built various kinds of mills, ornamented the country with numerous cottages, erected a church, and by the inhabitants of these parts has richly deserved to be called the father of the land . . . That he might commend to posterity the memory of a man who deserved so well of the . . . Republic, . . . Robert Hallowell Gardiner, his grandson and heir, has erected this honorable marble.

Notwithstanding the foregoing tributes to Dr. Gardiner, it yet remains to be said that he was a thorough Englishman and Tory. It originally had been his plan that his descendants should some day have the power to direct the life of the plantation from a great estate. This, of course, was not to be. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, together with his family and other Royalists, Dr. Gardiner returned to England.

In 1775, the settlers in the plantation were too poor to make their proper contribution toward the defense of the Colonies. They manifested their good will, nevertheless, in a Petition of the Committee of Safety of this Plantation of Gardinerston, direct to the President of the Committee of the Provincial Congress of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, assembled at Watertown.

Said William Gardiner (son of Dr. Gardiner), Reuben Colburn, Henry Smith and Samuel Oakman, in this petition: . . We have exerted ourselves to the utmost of our power in order to obtain such a quantity of powder as is necessary in our present situation, but can obtain none . . . We now implore your assistance, in our Infant and defenseless state . . . humbly hop'g you will Grant us what powder you think needful for us at this Time, out of the Colony Stock, and Charge it to this plantation . . .

Arnold's expedition to Quebec concerned the settlers of Gardinerstown in a particular way, inasmuch as Major Colburn had been commissioned by General Washington to build two hundred bateaux in his shipyard for use by Arnold's army. The major lived in what is now Pittston, about two miles below Gardiner, in a house which is still standing. He built the bateaux of pine, ribbed with oak. But the pine was green and the bateaux were cursedly heavy to tote. Each carrying six or seven men, they were propelled by four paddles and two poles. Neither the major nor his descendants were paid for them, despite petitions to Congress later.

It was an exciting day when Arnold and his army - 1,100 men in all - arrived in Gardinerstown. A mixture of adventurers, would-be soldiers, patriots, and hangers-on, they had walked from Cambridge to Newburyport, and boarded the eleven schooners there available. At Gardinerstown, with equipment including 500 bushels of corn and 60 barrels of salt pork, they boarded the bateaux and continued on that ill-fated journey.

Following the war, and until as late as 1790, conditions grew steadily worse in Gardinerstown. Land titles fell into doubt and dispute. No governing power existed and it was impossible to collect a debt or to obtain justice. Gradually the mills, dams, dwellings and wharves decayed. Assets declined, much property was abandoned, and squatters came into being. Not until the arrival or General Henry Dearborn did matters improve.

The accounts of the day-books of that period suggest some reasons why so many of the farms and other houses were lost by the settlers. A large number of the charges against them were for rum, tobacco, cider and snuff. Rum, incidently, costs 25 cents a quart; tobacco 17 cents a pound; cider 25 cents a gallon; and coffee and wool 25 cents a pound, turnips and potatoes 33 cents a bushel. Meantime, the annual tax on the average farm was $5.

General Henry Dearborn had been Commander-in-Chief of the American Army. He was a man of great will power and dignity. These traits, as well as his commission as Justice of the Peace, soon commanded the respect of all. He set up a shipping post in back of the Great House (site of the present National Bank of Gardiner), over which many a sturdy varlet ws placed, and against whom the old General had recorded sentence. The post, a windlass gallows, had previously been used for slaughtering cattle. Law and order were eventually established.

Gardiner's first post office was built in 1763, when mail arrived by packet in summer and was brought monthly by men on snowshoes in winter. Twenty-seven years later, mail was carried on horseback, from Portland, through Monmouth and Winthrop. It took eighteen days, in 1799, for the news of George Washington's death to reach the plantation.

For many years a post office established in Pittston (now Randolph) served the Gardiner area. Barzillai Gannett was named postmaster. Following the removal of the office across the river, in 1804, it was constantly moved from one place to another. Roads were so bad that not until 1812 did Government officials consent to sending mail direct to Gardiner by stagecoach.

In 1786, upon the death of Dr. Sylvester Gardiner, his son William inherited the estate. Only one year later, however, William suddenly died, and the property fell to Dr. Gardiner's grandson, Robert Hallowell, who then only five years old, took the name of Gardiner.

When Robert Hallowell Gardiner moved to Gardiner, in the year 1801, there were about 650 persons here, of whom 60 were squatters. Only two houses stood on Church Hill, and no carriage road led out of town in any direction. A one-mile stretch of dirt road did exist, however, from the river to New Mills.

The name New Mills originated when the first mill built at the location decayed, was taken down, and a new mill erected. Today, a bridge near the spot is called the New Mills Bridge.

Mr. Gardiner proceeded to repair the dams and mills. He settled property titles with the squatters liberally, and offered liberal inducements for manufacturers to settle here. Since there were but one or two stores in existence then, and many people were obliged to visit a neighboring settlement to trade, Mr. Gardiner built additional stores. He also had the land accurately surveyed. He endowed, and laid the cornerstone of Christ Church, one of the most beautiful granite structures in the State.

Gardiner's first church was a predecessor of the present Episcopal Church. A wooden building, St. Ann's was constructed in 1772 on the site of the present Christ Church Parish House. The present Gothic edifice, in 1819, cost $15,000. Its fine bell was cast by Paul Revere and was used, until about twenty-five years ago, to ring the curfew every night at nine.

The granite for Christ Church was quarried near Winthrop stream and brought by large flat boats down the Cobbosseecontee to New Mills, Gardiner. The cutway between Winthrop stream and the Cobbosseecontee was dredged to avoid an encounter with wind and wave on Pleasant Pond.

In 1803, by act of the legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the plantation of Gardinerston, was incorporated as a separate town, Gardiner. At the first town meeting, $1,600 was raised for the building and repair of highways, for schools, preaching, and for debts. $1,000 applied to the highways and $200 applied to each of the remaining items.

In the year 1820, there were more barns than houses and four times as many oxen as horses. Among other figures of the year were 1,500 tons of upland hay, 4 tons of fresh hay, 2,500 bushels of Indian corn, 1,000 of wheat, 59 of rye, 910 of oats, and varying quantities of barley, peas, beans, and other produce.

For the year 1,500 tons of shipping were recorded with $21,750 listed as stock in trade. While the average wealth of each person in the State stood at $100, that of each person in Gardiner was $160.

Two organizations - still very much alive today - were founded at this time: Hermon Lodge, No. 32, F. & A. M., during 1820, and Maine Commandery, No. 1, Knights Templar, (the first in Maine) a year later.

A substantial increase in river traffic was to be noted by 1832, when a stern-wheel steamer, the Ticconic, was built near the site of the present public library. This steamer ran from Gardiner to Waterville until the construction of a river dam at Augusta.

The city's magnificent stone Oaklands Mansion was erected in 1836, to replace a wooden structure which had previously been destroyed by fire. It is one of the finest residences in New England, and is still occupied by descendants of Dr. Sylvester Gardiner. Located on the Oaklands Estate, which extends about one mile along the river and contains some 310 acres of varied landscape, the mansion is reminiscent of the style of rural architecture that prevailed during the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth of England, and was completed at a cost of more than $32,000.

The Mansion was visited by many notable figures of the day, including, in 1847, President James K. Polk and the future President, James Buchanan. On that occasion, the Hon. George Evans, famed Gardiner statesman, made one of his finest addresses. President Polk said that nothing on his journey has so pleased and affected him as Mrs. Evans' remarks.

Among the many hardships endured by the people of these days were widespread fires, freshets, a tornado (something rare in Maine), and an epidemic of spotted fever. Nevertheless, both industrially and socially, Gardiner progressed steadily though out the remaining period of her life as a town.



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