My art practice has often involved the investigation of my own family history. For example, 2017’s passed down explored the passing down of sewing knowledge, and the individuals’ changing relationship with sewing from my grandmother, to my mother, to me. 2020’s I love it when you make me coffee in the morning., documented the normalization of non-traditional gender roles in the kitchen through three generations of my family, but same as in passed down, through to my maternal grandparents. My maternal grandmother is an avid genealogist, tracing my mother’s side of the family back to a Thomas Meryl in England in 1444, to the first Merrill (as the name had now changed spelling) to come over to America, Nathaniel, who arrived in Newburyport, Massachusetts between 1639 and 1642 (Merrill, Personal Interview), and most recently discovering a connection to a Resolved White who came over on the Mayflower (Merrill, “The Mayflower Connection”).
Because of this, I know a lot about the mother’s side of my family, but I realized that I didn’t know as much about my father’s, who are from the area in and around Monson. So, when I was tasked to research and write about the history of the area surrounding Monson Arts, I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore that area through the lens of my father’s family history in this part of Maine. With that, I began the research for this paper with a phone conversation with my father on July 14th, 2021.
In 1927 my paternal great-grandparents, Aubrey and Ethel Church, bought a farm in Shirley, Maine, less than 10 miles from where Monson Arts is today. The farm was the last place on the end of the road up until the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a Great Depression public work relief program that ran from 1933 to 1942 (Britannica), continued the road to connect Shirley to Moxie. My father, Brian Church, has many memories of this place, as he would go up to the farm as a kid in the summers for weeks at a time, visits that would continue throughout his teenage years and young adulthood to snowmobile, fish, and help in the vegetable garden (Church).
Aubrey and Ethel both came from families that had lived in the Moosehead Lake region for a long time. They moved to the farm from Sangerville, about 20 miles to the south, with my grandfather Cecil, then three years old. Aubrey and Ethel went on to have two more children, a daughter, Audrey, and another son, Clair, which made them an unusually small family for the time, geographic area, and within their extended families. Aubrey was one on 12 siblings, including two sets of twins, one being himself and his brother Audley. Ethel, whose maiden name was Hall, had seven siblings. Both being from large families, this eventually led to my grandfather having 141 first cousins (Church).
Aubrey worked lumbering and as a woodcutter, and they had a live-in lumberjack crew that stayed at the house during the week and worked with him in the woods. My father remembers that the farm had bunks upstairs for about eight men, and a big trestle table that would seat sixteen. Ethel cooked three meals a day for the crew as part of their pay, including a packed lunch to take into the woods. My father recalls, “A batch of yeast rolls to my grandmother meant probably 200. She was a fantastic baker” (Church). Interestingly, one of my earliest cooking memories of my father also involves baking in great quantity, but this time hundreds of biscuits for church suppers instead of rolls for hungry lumbermen.
On the farm they kept cows, chickens, and the draft horses that Aubrey and the crew used lumbering, as well as a large garden that averaged 100 by 300 feet. Later, my father as a teenager and young adult would help with the garden, remembering an occasion of note when he and a friend drove up the day after his high school graduation to hoe potatoes. Those potatoes would be kept in bins of sand in the basement to last through the winter without spoiling, and Ethel would pickle and can cucumbers, beets, and corn. Along with fishing and hunting, which my father and his friends would also join in on, the farm was mostly self-sufficient (Church).
Cecil and his siblings attended grade school in Shirley, in a two-room schoolhouse that was still in use up to 2009 (“Shirley School Buildings”), and then attended high school in Greenville. After graduation, my grandfather got a job as a woodcutter and warehouse manager at Sanders Store, which was where the Indian Hill Trading Post now operates.
Sanders supplied many of the lumbering and sporting camps in the Katahdin and Moosehead Lake regions. Logs were also run from here, as the east and west outlets of Moosehead Lake are the headwaters of the Kennebec River (Church). Some of those same hunting and sporting camps became the locations of the campgrounds in what is now Baxter State Park, a place which has become an important summer ritual in my life. These include the Nesowadnehunk Field Campground on the site of a depot camp that supported the horses used in logging operations (Baxter State Park 34), Daicey Pond Campground, which was converted from a sporting camp called Twin Pine Camps run by the York family from 1902 to the late 1960’s (Baxter State Park 27, Neff 114-118), and Kidney Pond Campground, which was originally the Kidney Pond Camps, established in 1899 by Irving O. Hunt (Neff 107-112). This is the same I.O. Hunt who in 1900 cut a trail up the Southwest Spur of Mount Katahdin that now shares his name and is the last leg of the Application Trail (Neff 109), as well as my personal favorite route up the mountain.
Cecil Church lived in the Moosehead Lake region until the early 1950’s, when he moved to Waterville, Maine. There, he met and married my grandmother, Gladys, who was roommates at the time with his sister, Audrey (Church). Later, it was also in Waterville where my father and, even later, I would be born.
Aubrey Church died in the fall of 1980. My father recounted to me that several of his high school friends who used to visit the farm with him to fish and snowmobile came up to the funeral, and together they carried his casket out the door of the of the Shirley Methodist Church and all the way up to the cemetery in the rain. Ethel died in a nursing home in Greenville on April 4th, 1982, the same day on which my parents married (Church). The farm and accompanying land were passed down into a trust between Aubrey and Ethel’s children and their descendants, and the last of the property was sold off in by the middle of the aughts.
My family returned to this area in 2015 when my parents bought a small, one room camp in nearby Abbot, Maine, dubbed “Camp 10-7” after the fire and police radio code for “out of service,” as they are the Chief and Chaplain for the Vienna, Maine, volunteer fire department and are unable to be reached by cell or internet when “upta camp.” At the end of our phone conversation, my dad mentioned a camp road that he noticed not too far from Camp 10-7, just down the road, past the Kingsbury boat landing “about a mile up on the left” (Church). At the end of that camp road, like with many other camp roads around Maine, are posted signs with each of the family names of the camps along it, including the names Church, Hall, and McKay, another surname in our family tree. He remarked, “Someday I’m going to get brave and stop and see who they are” (Church).
Baxter State Park. Katahdin: a Guide to Baxter State Park. 8th ed., Baxter State Park Authority, 2017.
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Civilian Conservation Corps”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 20 Nov. 2019, “Civilian Conservation Corps” webpage (External Site). Accessed 14 July 2021.
Church, Brian. Personal Interview. 14 July 2021.
“Early History.” Town of Shirley Maine, Shirley “Early History” webpage (External Site).
Merrill, Beverly. Personal Interview. 15 July 2021.
Merrill, Beverly. “The Mayflower Connection of the Johnathan Millett Cummings and Martha J. Cummings, great grandparents of Beverly J. Cummings Merrill, and the great, great grandparents of Constance Cummings.” 31 May 2021.
Moosehead Historical Society & Museums. “Photo Gallery.” Moosehead Historical Society & Museums, Moosehead Historical Society & Museums “Photo Gallery” webpage (External Site). Accessed 15 July 2021.
Neff, John W. Katahdin, an Historic Journey: Legends, Explorations, and Preservation of Maine’s Highest Peak Mountain. Appalachian Mountain Club Books, 2006.
“Shirley School Buildings.” Town of Shirley Maine, “Shirley School Buildings” webpage (External Site). Accessed 14 July 2021.