A ride back through time on Frye Mountain

By Stephanie Grinnell | Sep 30, 2015
Courtesy of: Montville Historical Society The Thomas Erskine farm on Frye Mountain. According to Montville Historical Society records, Erskine owned several properties on Frye Mountain.

Montville — “He said if we could just go one more year, that would be great,” Montville Historical Society President Debi Stephens said of fellow member Elmin Mitchell.

According to Stephens, Mitchell was the driving force — literally — behind the yearly horse-drawn wagon tours of Frye Mountain. Mitchell died April 22 following a bout with cancer and the tours this year are being held in his memory, she said.

“He's the one who really brought [the idea] to fruition,” Stephens said, adding the horse-drawn wagon drivers, also known as teamsters, originally came together because of Mitchell, who also drove a team, and volunteered their time again this year to honor him.

There is some concern the tours, scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 4, departing at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., may not happen because heavy rain is forecast. Stephens said those who have registered in advance will be notified by phone if their tour is canceled, but cautioned tours may not be rescheduled as the weather cools. In fact, she said, this year may be the last time tours are offered. Stephens explained the huge time commitment it takes for historical society members, as well as the teamsters — all volunteers — to pull the tours together and cited dwindling numbers of historical society members as well.

Should the free tours go on, Stephens noted a core group of about 10 historical society members will continue to research the history and plan the tour. Donations are accepted, but not required, she said.

This year, the tour will cover a part of Frye Mountain not previously featured, but information about the overall area will be provided. Stephens said 96-year-old Hartley Curtis, who grew up on Frye Mountain, attends the tours every year and shares his stories.

“I've been all over the mountain with Hartley,” Stephens said. “People just love his stories.”

Along with narration, the tour offers a glimpse into the past through photographs and markers of historic sites, such as farmhouses and schools.

“It's Waldo County, really, just our way of doing a community event,” she said. “So many people have shared stories with us. It really is a community thing when we get up there.”

According to information provided by Montville Historical Society, Frye Mountain was originally home to farming families, but in the late 1930s, the United States government obtained much of the land on and around Frye Mountain through the Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act. Proposed in 1937, the act was amended several times before passage, but ultimately “offered low interest loans, with stipulations on maintenance and proper farming practices, hopefully to encourage families to work on improving what might eventually be their own property,” according to a summary prepared by the Historical Society.

Even prior to purchase of property in Montville, some work was being done by the government in anticipation of its becoming part of Lake St. George State Park. According to a May 1936 article in The Republican Journal, there were several options being considered for the less than 1,000-acre area. At the time it seemed most likely to become a recreational area, including camping, swimming and picnic areas, as well as hiking trails.

“The idea one gets is that it will be somewhat similar to the Belfast City Park,” the article states.

Frye Mountain became home to a game management district instead and in 1985 was renamed Gene Letourneau Wildlife Management Area, after a longtime outdoor sportswriter from Waterville. The name change was protested with a petition signed by 400 who believed the name change was disrespectful to the original families who lived on Frye Mountain, according to Historical Society records.

Most of the Frye Mountain homes are completely gone, with only a marker noting the presence of a structure, Stephens said. She said she still wonders what was said to homeowners by government representatives regarding purchase of their property, based on stories of a few holdouts, as well as tales of homes burned and torn down. Also gone is a fire tower that sat atop Frye Mountain — it was moved to Swan Island in the Kennebec River in 2002 — that was staffed between 1931 and 1991 with people trained to spot forest fires. Still, Stephens said, there is much to learn about and see on Frye Mountain.

The tours are free, but a $20 refundable confirmation deposit is required to assure that each volunteer driver has a full wagon on tour day. For more information, to share a story, or to reserve a seat on a wagon, call Barbara Boulay at 589-4414.

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