“Unearthed” is not Prof. Steven L. Bridge’s first published book, but it is his first venture into Maine archaeology and also the first imprint from St. Joseph’s College Press. On all counts it makes for curious, challenging and rewarding reading.
As a book, however, its organization appears a bit eccentric. In fact, many of the historical archaeology books I have reviewed have had similar problems in combining objects found in digs and historical documentation found in archives and libraries.
In many cases, they are presented in separate sections, and that is the case with this book about artifacts uncovered on the Saint Joseph College campus and the stories of the people who preceded the place. If the reader is looking for a seamless read on the historic archaeology of the Sebago Lake grounds, he or she will be disappointed.
This is not to say that Bridge is not an eloquent writer or the book not a treasure trove, but exploring what the researcher has to offer takes time. Entry into the book is made easier by a lucid foreword from college president Jim Dlugos, a first-rate preface from the redoubtable Michael C. Connolly and a necessary “users’ guide” by Bridge.
Next we are given the introductory section, including two chapters on the founding of Standish (originally Pearsontown) and the founding of, by the Sisters of Mercy, St. Joseph’s Academy (1907) in Portland. In 1954, the trustees bought 115 acres of the Verrill estate in Standish, moved the campus there and purchased more property, and the school has since flourished.
This provides the reader with a useful thumbnail sketch of the territory and school before their conjuncture. The chapters that follow detail and illuminate artifacts uncovered during Bridge’s digs on campus and offer entertaining biographies of some of the people who owned the real estate before the college. This proves the utterly enjoyable heart of “Unearthed.”
I was a bit taken aback by one of the first artifacts described, “Straight Sided ‘Coca Cola Bottling Co.’ Glass Soda Bottle (Portland, ME ca. 1926).” Not much of a find, it seemed to me, but I was surprised by its shape and the fact that it had been bottled in Portland. A few paragraphs in, I was both hooked and enlightened. How the national soft-drink industry grew and spread to Portland and its burbs is fascinating and told with wit.
The biographical chapters covered the founders and builders of Standish, beginning with triple-lot owner Moses Pearson (1697-1778), one of the great figures in the second founding of Falmouth (now Portland). Indeed, noted historian Charles E. Clark in “The Eastern Frontier” (1970) gives a whole chapter to the man as representative of both time and place. Pearson held multiple town, county and British offices, so it is no surprise that Standish was first named Pearsontown, or that the next double-lot owner was Pearson’s son-in-law, the Rev. Samuel Deane of Falmouth’s First Parish Church. The names of worthy men and women landowners in the backcountry roll on under Bridge’s guidance, and while not all settled in Standish, this early land rush led to farms and second houses pushing the frontier.
Though no megalopolis formed, the decision to move St. Joseph’s College campus from west Portland to Lake Sebago was part of a later phenomenon of the 20th century that saw the movement of churches, synagogues, child-care institutions and industries away from the inner city of Portland to the “more healthy” suburbs. All this made possible by street railroads, automobiles, telephones and continuing communications.
Here flesh and blood individuals are animated by archaeological finds, site reports and chains of ownership lot by lot, along with listings of the Leonard Shaw and Blake cemeteries.
“Unearthed” proves a massive piece of research providing information not available elsewhere. The chapters about the artifacts and the lot owners are fun to read and combine into a unique saga of how our backyard-west was won and a college firmly planted.
William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland with his wife, Debra, and their cat, Nadine.