FREEPORT – To an 18th-century passer-by, the scene must have seemed surreal.
Behind teams of oxen straining in their yokes, hulking sections of clapboard walls and timber beams lay lashed and ready for their final climb. It was a house, divided into three sections for a journey that would become local legend.
More than two centuries ago, before the British colonies erupted in revolution, prominent merchant Capt. Greenfield Pote ordered his humble home moved from present-day Falmouth Foreside to a spit of pastureland on Wolfe’s Neck in Freeport.
According to local lore, the captain, so vexed by a fine from British rulers for setting sail on the Sabbath, was said to have fled Falmouth in a fit of frustration, said Frank Pote, 60, a family descendant and Freeport resident who is producing a documentary about the house and the family.
“This move is an action of defiance, not just (men) in the square talking about it,” said Frank Pote, a longtime television producer.
“I felt it was time to do something,” he said. “It all needs to be documented, so why not start here?”
There is no doubt that one of Freeport’s oldest houses has stories to share about the history of the region and the people who settled it. And Frank Pote’s effort to uncover and document the history is being welcomed by fans of the house and local history.
But local historians and researchers are more skeptical about the attributed motivation for Greenfield Pote’s move, and say the story is a prime example of the melding of historical fact with popular fiction.
Greenfield Pote was, in fact, fined in April of 1765. However, documents gathered from original land and property records show that evidence of the home in present-day Freeport did not appear until 1787, more than two decades later, according to researchers for the Freeport Historical Society.
“It looks more like (moving the house) was a slow fume rather than a sudden temper tantrum,” said Ned Allen, collections manager at the Freeport Historical Society, who said skepticism of history’s rosiest traditions is a healthy habit. “It’s been one of those great stories of Freeport.”
Original property records from the era show that Pote first built the home in 1761 in present-day Falmouth. Pote continued to live in the home after it was moved to present-day Freeport.
Pote, like other sea captains, would spend months at a time traveling to Europe and the Caribbean trading lumber, salt and other goods. When Freeport formally separated from what had been old North Yarmouth in 1789, he was among the original signatories of the town’s founding documents, and served on the first elected governing body for the freshly minted municipality.
The Pote House has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1970.
Remarkably, it looks much as it did after Greenfield Pote put the pieces together on Wolfe’s Neck. There have been no major additions to the structure’s footprint, and its long, sloping roof, marking it in the “saltbox” style, still points toward the glimmering Harraseeket, viewable from above the pasture, as it was years ago.
Ursula Baier, 84, who helped usher the property onto the historic registry, said the interior maintains much of its layout and features, including original woodwork and beams.
Some interior fireplaces have been covered over, and insulation and exterior coverings have been replaced or updated from the days when seaweed and eel skins were once used for weatherproofing. Clapboard siding and shake roofing have been replaced over the years, and some modifications have been made to accommodate electrical service and an oil-burning heating system.
The narrow strip of land where it sits, now preserved as the nonprofit Wolfe’s Neck Farm, also stands virtually unchanged from the time when Pote landed there, said Kathy Smith, whose husband’s family originally purchased the farm in 1947. The landscapes likely looked much the same during Revolutionary times when Freeport, which would not be incorporated until 1789, was still a frontier compared to the Portland area.
“The value of objects like this … they add a layer of our understanding of the past. Somehow when you’re standing on that hill with the house you get what it feels like” to have lived in the 1700s, Smith said.
“I think it would be great if Frank Pote could burrow into this and create a real narrative,” said Smith, who features the home and its oral history during a hayride tour of the farm.
Always a saltwater farm, the Pote house has over the decades hosted farmhands, Civil War veterans and more recently, friends or associates of Wolfe’s Neck Farm.
Frank Pote, who plans to film the 90-minute, nonprofit documentary this year and donate the resulting film to the Freeport and the Maine historical societies, has yet to embark on his research of the historical records.
With only $10,000 raised, the project is in its infancy, he said. He hopes to raise as much as $86,000 from private and corporate sponsors, including some clients of his company, New England Productions. How much he raises will largely dictate the scope of the project, which will likely include interviews, historical re-enactments and computer-generated and real-life segments to help re-create the arduous disassembly and movement of the home, as well as the time period in which his ancestors lived.
And like many other tales forged over dozens of decades and countless retellings — including the now-debunked myth that Freeport was the birthplace of Maine — the nub of truth is not always easy to find.
It is undisputable that Pote was fined roughly 30 shillings for setting sail from Falmouth harbor on Sept. 2, 1764 — a Sunday — in violation of laws against working on the holy day and setting an “evil example to others,” according to transcriptions of original court documents.
Before the court, Greenfield Pote was defiant, if not polite: “The said Greenfield comes and says he will not contend with our said sovereign Lord the King but submits himself to his Grace,” according to a transcript of the April 1765 proceeding.
The costs and fees — at 20 shillings 8 pence — attached to Pote’s conviction were more than double the 10 shillings that the court ordered he pay for breaking the law.
But what is less clear is why Pote moved, and whether the fine was connected to his new choice of setting.
“You can understand why all these ship captains came here, after all these taxes and fines and levies,” Frank Pote said. “It’s politics. They had had it. They were in a country they felt they built.”
Freeport in those years was a much wilder place, with untouched forests, mud flats, coastline and pasture. It was also further from the creeping influence of the British monarchy, a nearby frontier that allowed the ship’s captain easy access to landings in Portland, Falmouth and beyond.
Even if it is not entirely true that Greenfield’s fine by the crown provided the motivation to saw apart his domicile and sail it north 20 miles on flat-bottom barges, the history of the house clearly reflects the persistence of stubborn, Yankee frugality.
“I think the stories are important, too, even if they’re not true,” said Allen, the collections manager at Freeport Historical Society.
“It says something about the image of ourselves.”
Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303 or at: