July 8, 2013

Colburn House is a true home of history

The Maine Historic Site will present a program about its remarkable lore on Saturday in Pittston.

By JOHN HALE / Kennebec Journal Correspondent

PITTSTON — The Maj. Reuben Colburn House, painted red and surrounded by bright summer flowers, has been a center of American history, including Col. Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec in 1775, and the focus of a thriving Maine family for 248 years.

click image to enlarge

Tom Desjardin, a Parks and Public Lands historian with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, inspects an 18th-century birchbark canoe built by Indians on display at the Maj. Reuben Colburn House State Historic Site in Pittston. The Kennebec Historical Society will hold a program Saturday that features a collection of boats.

Andy Malloy/Kennebec Journal

click image to enlarge

The Colburn House in Pittston.


The Colburn House will be open to the public for self-guided tours from 1 to 5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays in July and August.

Parking is available on Arnold Road, which runs in front of the homestead.

To get there, cross the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Bridge from Gardiner to Randolph, turn right on Route 27, drive 2.5 miles to Pittston, take a right where the road splits.

Now a Maine Historic Site, owned and managed by the state, the Colburn House is nearing completion of an ambitious and successful three-year restoration project that cost $200,000. At present, the barn and carriage house contain more historic objects and are more nearly finished for public viewing than the house itself.

"The Life of Reuben Colburn" will be the topic of a free lecture at 1 p.m. Saturday in the Colburn House barn, sponsored by the Kennebec Historical Society. The presenter will be Tom Desjardin, historian for the Bureau of Parks and Lands in the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

In 1763, Jeremiah Colburn left Dracut, Mass., with his family to settle along the Kennebec River on some property he had bought in what was then called Gardinerstown. He migrated there with his wife and eight children.

One of Jeremiah's sons, Jeremiah Jr., continued north and founded what became the Old Town-Orono area.

Another son, named Reuben Colburn, who was then 23, bought about 800 acres of his father's land, including substantial shoreline along the river. Reuben built the Colburn homestead in 1765 and began harvesting and selling lumber.

Reuben was a shrewd, well-liked businessman who specialized in building boats, schooners, brigs and even full-rigged ships that sailed around the world. He built his smaller watercraft in a barn that was larger than the one standing today. The present-day barn was built in 1849 by Reuben's grandson, Gustavus Adolphus Colburn.

Over the years, Reuben's holdings expanded to include a saw mill, a grist mill and another saw mill on the falls in Skowhegan.

Reuben was a patriot who played a big part in the Revolutionary War.

The shipbuilder was on good terms with the American Indians of the Kennebec Valley, especially after the British wiped out an Indian village at Norridgewock, upstream from Skowhegan.

In 1775, a year before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Reuben brought a contingent of Abenakis from the St. Francis region of northern Maine and Quebec to Cambridge, Mass. They met with Gen. George Washington, who became commander of the Continental Army on July 1. The Indian leaders vowed that several tribes were willing to go to war on the side of the American colonists. Washington was pleased, but said the Continental Congress already had decided it would not use Indian warriors in battle against the British. A few Indians could be used as scouts, however.

Washington had been meeting with Arnold to discuss the feasibility of launching an expedition up the Kennebec River valley, across several poorly charted portages and down the Chaudi? River to attack Quebec, "the Fortress City."

The Americans understood that the city was only lightly guarded by the British, who had not made much progress in pacifying the colony's smaller villages, and the Americans thought that if the they could capture the city, they could split the British forces in North America.

When Washington gave Arnold the go-ahead, Reuben Colburn was given instructions from Arnold to build 200 bateaux at his shipyard in Gardinerstown, capable of moving an army north into the wilderness.

Arnold asked for wooden boats "capable of carrying six or seven men each, with their provisions and baggage (say 100 pounds to each man), the boats to be furnished with four oars, two paddles and two setting poles each."

Maine bateaux at that time stood 3 feet tall at the bow and stretched about 22 feet from bow to stern.

(Continued on page 2)

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