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Princeton: Woods and Water Built This Town

Text by Nancy Marshall

Images from Princeton Public Library

Woods and water played a critical part in establishing early industries in Maine. Princeton's story provides a good example. Soon after the first settlers arrived they assumed responsibilities of making a living for themselves using their surrounding resources. These resources consisted primarily of timber, agricultural land, water and fisheries, and played a substantial part in the history of Princeton and its development.

In 1815 Moses Bonney of Baileyville arrived in what is now South Princeton. He is the first known white settler. In 1820, when Maine separated from Massachusetts and became a state, settlers were expanding their reaches to where the present bridge on Route 1 crosses from Princeton to Indian Township.

Tomah Lewy, a Native American, and his wife and children had traveled up the St. Croix River to this location around 1812. The settlement that grew up around the Lewys home became known as Lewy's Island Settlement.

Later the island became covered by water when Putnam Rolfe built a "roll dam" that crossed the lower part of the island, and Lewy relocated his dwelling place to the area on the north side of the river now known as Indian Township.

When the town was incorporated in 1832, the name of the community was changed to Princeton in honor of Princeton, Massachusetts, the hometown of Ebenezer Rolfe, an early Princeton settler.

Woodlands contributed much to the industrial prosperity of Maine, and Princeton was no exception. White pine provided lumber for ships, homes, barns, and other buildings. Logs were sawed into lumber and shipped by boats to all parts of the world.

Timber was cut upstream of Princeton and floated down the St. Croix River to mills located along the river all the way to Calais. Putnam Rolfe watched the logs float by and became determined to build a mill in Princeton.

In 1851 "Put" Rolfe built a roll dam, so-called because the water rolled over the dam, and in 1852 he built the first lumber saw mill in Princeton. Thereafter the area on the river surrounding the roll dam became known as the "Roll."

Downstream in 1852, the Calais Railroad was re-activated as the Calais and Baring Railroad and extended along the St. Croix River northward to Baring. Lewy's Island Railroad was chartered in 1854, but according to the Maine Central Railroad website, the railway wasn't extended from Baring through New Brunswick to Princeton until 1857.

In the meantime the Calais and Baring Railroad, for the year ending Dec. 31, 1853, reported having hauled "34,623,217 feet long lumber, 41,232,000 laths, 753,300 pickets, 444,500 shingles, 600 ships' knees, and 6000 cords of mill-wood end edgings."

In 1853 Charles Spooner and Abbott Moore built the first steamboat in the area and it operated on Big Lake in Princeton. It was financed by a group of Washington County mill operators and lumber merchants called the Schoodic Lake Steamboat Corporation.

Because of the Passamaquoddy native Lewy's intimate experience and knowledge of the local waters he was employed as a navigator on this new steamer. He could be seen stationed on the front of the boat motioning to the man in the wheelhouse which direction to take, thereby earning himself the name "Captain Lewy." This steamboat also was named the Captain Lewy.

With cheap and plentiful lumber now being produced in town, and the presence of a new railroad, other mills and businesses rapidly sprang up. In 1857, Put Rolfe and his new business partner, Leonard Peabody, enlarged the lumber mill by adding a stave mill for barrel making, and a gristmill for grinding corn and wheat.

Nathaniel Darling built a mill for sawing long lumber, lathes and shingles. William Sargent built a mill in 1858, and in 1859 A.W. Buckman, also called the "Squire," opened a mill. In 1858 or 1859 James Belmore and Ben Young built a long lumber mill that primarily used cedar. In 1858 C. Waite and Company built a mill. Around 1860 a tannery, which used hemlock bark, was built by White and Waterhouse; and B.T. Wright and Company had a mill for long lumber and lathes.

In 1863 Leonard Peabody built a woolen mill, and shortly after he built a spool-bar mill near the woolen mill.

Princeton was in a commercial building boom, and as a result, there was an influx of men and families to work in the mills. The population of Princeton rose from 280 in 1850, to 626 in 1860 and to 1,076 by 1870. Each mill had a company store where mill employees could exchange their labor for food and supplies and a boarding house for employees.

In winter many men worked in the woods as lumberjacks, felling trees and yarding logs. In the spring these same men worked as log-peelers and river-drivers; in the summer they worked in the mills or on the farm.

Long logs, and later pulpwood, were harvested in the remote forests upstream from Princeton. Lumberjacks used teams of horses to haul the wood to the ice and on the shore, where it remained until spring. These men worked all the hours of daylight and at times didn't receive any cash until the logs were at the mill "below." Sometimes instead of cash they were given credit at the company store.

Streams, lakes and rivers were the standard means of transporting the logs. Using spring runoff and a series of dams to hold the water until needed, the logs were sent into the water and floated downstream to the awaiting mills. Near the point of entry into the waters of a lake, the logs were gathered by a series of logs chained end to end into "boom logs."

The boom logs were used in the small lakes to channel the wood, or they were attached to boats that hauled the logs to the outlet where the rushing waters, aided by skilled men called river drivers rushed the logs to the next lake where they were gathered again by boom logs.

The year 1864 brought many changes to Princeton. The country was in the midst of the Civil War, and in the fall of 1864, there was a major fire in town. All of the mills on the "roll" except the tannery and the woolen mill burned.

Princeton was facing economic devastation. At a special town meeting on November 29, 1864, some businessmen were given tax abatements, and the Lewy's Island Railroad was abated all taxes "on condition that the railroad continue to run for one year."

The destruction of the mills brought an abrupt end to the lumber being shipped from Princeton to Calais, thereby cutting off a large part of the railroad's income. But, according to Bruce Belmore's Early Princeton:

"In the course of a year or so new mills were built by Squire Buckman; Waite and Company; Belmore (Dan) and Sargent (William); Belmore (James) and Porter (George M.) who soon thereafter sold out to Stewart and Woodcock; and Ferd Mercier. Ferd built his mill, a small spool-bar mill, on the Indian Township side of the dam over which a roadway was constructed. With the building of Paul Spooner's new grist-mill and John Monk's new blacksmith shop, the Roll resumed its former appearance and stride; and soon the people began to forget about the big fire of 1864."

In 1866 John Furbish came to town and started a hoop-pole business. Staves were already being manufactured in town for making barrels, and the hoops were the wooden bands needed to hold the staves in place. Large quantities of the resulting barrels were shipped "below," especially to Eastport where fish, and other commodities were shipped out. The seconds were sent to Red Beach where they were packed with lime.

The majority of the hoops for the barrels were manufactured by local people at their homes. As Parks Carle of Princeton recalled, "Everyone made hoops ... that didn't have a horse."

Parks said the hoops were bundled and sold to dealers, "or if you needed ready money there was always someone right there to buy your hoops ... right when you came out of the woods."

Joyce Carle Hett of Princeton recalled hoops being made at her home when she was growing up: 

"My father and my grandfather used to shave hoops in the winter. And they had a little hoop shack down there by the lake and they made hoops that they made barrels out of, and there was a Frenchman, out of upper Frenchville, Maine, wherever that is, and he used to come down in the spring and buy their hoops. They had these drawer knives and that is what they did in the winter and they had a stove down there. My father and grandfather Libby."

She said they used ash for the hoops. She recalled, "It is in the swamps and they would cut it and then they made the hoops and bound them up in bundles and the guy would come down in the spring and buy them. That was in the wintertime."

Then in 1876 fire again raged through the mills along the river, and again all but the tannery and the woolen mill burned. Ferd Mercier's Mill in Indian Township also remained. There was much debate about what caused the fire and laments about not having employed night watchmen after the first fire.

Put Rolfe was the only one to quickly clean away the ruins of his second mill and build a third. He died two years later on July 7, 1878.

In 1880, manufacturers in Princeton consisted of a lumber mill, a woolen mill, a tannery, a harness maker, four blacksmiths, two wheelwrights and two hoop dealers, all of which were directly tied to wood or water. Other sideline businesses to support the people who worked with wood or on the water were general stores, a drug store, a confectionery, a tailor, a milliner, and a painter.

In 1888, James Murchie of Calais built a hardwood orange-box factory in Princeton, one of only four in the state, and Charles Eaton and his wife Alice Eaton, daughter of James Murchie, came to Princeton to operate it.

When the townspeople heard that the mill was going to be built, they realized the economic boost this new industry would have. The mill ran about six months of the year and employed about fifty people.

Hardwood -- mostly birch, maple and beech -- was used in making orange box shooks. The logs were sawed in lengths of about four feet and these lengths were steamed in a tight compartment for several hours. They were then taken out and made to revolve in front of a long, sharp knife that cut off a veneer of any desired thickness. These veneers were dried and then cut into box shooks to form the sides, top and bottom of orange boxes, the ends being usually made of spruce boards.

These box shooks were sent around the Mediterranean Sea, many coming back filled with oranges. The mill at this time was known as the "Murchie-Eaton Hardwood Mill" or the "Shook Mill."

The Eaton hardwood mill generated electricity for a few years, until the town built its first powerhouse in 1916. In 1920 the Eatons sold the business to Edward B. Draper of Bangor, and later it was owned by John Lewis of Brownville.

In these latter days it was referred to as the "U.S. Peg and Shank" and was manufacturing hardwood into products such as ice cream spoons, popsicle sticks, shoe shanks, and pegs under the management of Arnold Smith.

The mill, which was back of where the Post Office is now, burned around 1939 or 1940.

Louise Deschene talked about working at the mill six days a week, with only Sundays off. Her brother lost his fingers in one of the machines. She was 16 years old when she went to work there.

In 1930 the last major lumber mill in Princeton was built on the Grand Falls Flowage by Ally M. Nason of Monticello. It burned in 1941 and was immediately rebuilt. It burned a second time and was rebuilt again.

Then Nason sold it to NE Lumber owned by Stewart and Campbell. They sold it five years later to Passamaquoddy Lumber which was a subsidiary of Dead River, and later it was purchased by Hunt Brothers. In more recent years it also burned, and was never rebuilt.

In 2013, long logs can still be seen in Princeton as they go by on trucks headed to mills to the north and to the south.

And many visitors come from around the country to the Princeton area to recreate in its woods and upon its waters. Guides and lodges cater to hunters, anglers and ecotourists.

Woods and water still play a major role in the local economy of this area known as "Sportsman's Paradise."