The Brunswick Rotary Club hopes to mount a plaque at the 1793 cattle pound at Harpswell Center, commemorating a structure vital to early settlers’ lives.
The cattle pound is on a 0.57-acre sliver of land known as the town commons, on Harpswell Neck Road between Elijah Kellogg Church and the Harpswell Historical Society. Cattle pounds “are a fascinating piece of history and very few people are aware” of their existence, Rotarian David Taft said in a letter to the Harpswell Board of Selectmen.
Since its 70th anniversary in 1995, the Rotary Club’s Brunswick Heritage Committee has placed a series of markers in the area to commemorate historic sites that might otherwise escape notice, according to Taft, who lives in Harpswell. The club has placed 15 markers, including at least three in Harpswell — at the Mill Cove Tide Mill on High Head Road, the Orr’s Island Library and Holbrook Wharf in Cundy’s Harbor.
When the committee identifies a site, it conducts research and drafts language for a bronze plaque in coordination with the property owner.
Harpswell Town Administrator Kristi Eiane notified the Board of Selectmen of the proposal on April 14. The Harpswell Historical Society and the Town Lands Committee will review the proposal before it comes back to the board for a decision.
A paper available on the website of the Harpswell Historical Society examines the rise and demise of cattle pounds in Maine. The paper is by the late William Locke, a former board member at the Historical Society who lived in South Harpswell.
Pounds were enclosures where a town would keep stray animals until their owner claimed them and paid for any damage they had caused.
“One of the first pounds in Maine was built in 1793 in Harpswell, a fishing and farming community on Casco Bay where stray cattle were causing serious damage in unfenced gardens and pastures,” Locke wrote.
“It is hard, today, to appreciate the impact of cattle grazing in a garden or in the wrong pasture. For families on subsistence farms, the winter’s food for both humans and animals was at stake,” Locke wrote. “Moreover, in certain seasons, male animals on the loose created another difficulty: It was important for owners to be able to choose what male bred with what female.”
Because of this threat, early town meetings saw “angry demands for an end to damage by marauding cattle,” Locke wrote.
Indeed, the construction of pounds was a top priority for Harpswell’s founders. The Massachusetts General Court incorporated Harpswell on Jan. 25, 1758, as the 13th town in what was then the District of Maine. The next year, voters at town meeting ordered the construction of two log pounds, one on Great Island and one at Harpswell Center.
Early on, elected pound keepers would keep animals in their barns or in log enclosures. “Later, towns contracted for massive stone structures with heavy, locked gates, not only to keep animals in but also to prevent owners from ‘liberating’ them without paying costs and damages,” Locke wrote.
In 1783, voters approved the town’s first stone pounds — again, one on Great Island and one at Harpswell Center. The surviving cattle pound at Harpswell Center was built 10 years later, in 1793, “but is still one of the earliest known in the state,” according to Locke. The location of the Great Island pound is unknown.
The stone walls that mark the boundaries of the Harpswell Center pound today are the remains of the structure. Around the 1930s, the state took most of the stones “to fill a marshy place in the road,” Locke wrote.
Harpswell Historical Society President David Hackett said that the east and south walls are original, while the others were rebuilt in the 1980s. Locke contributed to that effort.
Factors such as the decline of agriculture, the enclosure of pastures and a rise in civic responsibility rendered pounds mostly obsolete in the early-to-mid-1800s. “The final blow to pounds came in the 1870s with the introduction of cheap, effective barbed wire,” Locke wrote.
If the Rotary receives the go-ahead, “the plaque should be ready to mount by the end of the summer,” Taft said. There would be a ceremony to unveil the plaque. The club would then add a description of the site to its website and a brochure.