The South Portland Historical Society will offer our next program on Wednesday, Sept. 20, at 6:30 p.m. at the Community Center. This month’s lecture, on Maine’s colonial mast trade and the Tate family, will be presented by Tate House Executive Director Holly K. Hurd.

Holly will be sharing her lecture, New Insights about Tate House Prehistory and Tate Family Culture. She will discuss Tate’s predecessor in the mast trade, Thomas Westbrook, how the building of dams by English colonists on the Stroudwater and Presumpscot Rivers disrupted the food-ways of Indigenous people, and African enslavement in colonial Maine.

The felling of a mast tree involved “bedding” the fall so the tree wouldn’t shatter as it hit the ground. Image from New England Masts and The King’s Broad Arrow.

Holly grew up in Idaho and moved to Maine in 2001. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern Maine in American and New England Studies. She has worked as an educator, collections manager and curator at the North Yarmouth, Yarmouth, and Freeport historical societies, and in Education Outreach at the Osher Map Library. She became the executive director of Tate House Museum in 2020 and has published two illustrated history books as well as a number of articles on historical topics.

The lecture will be held in the Casco Bay Wing of the South Portland Community Center, 21 Nelson Road. Admission to this program is free for current South Portland Historical Society members, $20 for non-members. If you would like to become a historical society member at the event, please arrive a little early. An annual family membership starts at just $25 and provides admission to our entire year’s worth of programming.

Before the American Revolution, the mast trade was a major industry in Maine. The province of Maine was, at the time, a part of the British Empire. The British, being an island nation, achieved and maintained much of their global power through its navy. According to Samuel F. Manning’s 1979 book, “New England Masts and the Kings Broad Arrow:”

Teams of oxen were used to move the massive mast logs. Where two mast roads met the mast would have to be turned. This is the origin of some of Northern New England’s town squares. Image from New England Masts and The King’s Broad Arrow.

“Most commerce was waterborne in the 1600s. Wooden ships for commerce and for war were built by the thousands among the handful of kingdoms washed by the English Channel. Nations then, like nations today, scrambled and fought to secure the sources of ship timber, mast trees and other so-called naval stores with the vigor that we pursue and protect our sources of oil. Their ships were wind driven. Masts were required to transmit the force of wind via sails into driving power for the hull. Mast timber for large vessels had become scarce and difficult to obtain. For most ship-owning countries, mast timber had become war material of the most strategic sort.”


The British had a problem. They had cut down most of the suitable trees for masts on their home islands. The British next turned to the forests of the Baltic for their mast trees but this source of timber was unreliable since it was dependent on friendly governments in the Baltic region.

In their province of Maine, the British discovered the perfect tree to make ships’ masts: the white pine. The old-growth white pines grew straight and tall, perfect for masts and yards (long pieces of wood that were horizontal to the masts from which sails hung). Being a soft wood, white pine masts had the flexibility to bend in the wind, whereas a harder wood, like an oak, might snap in the wind. The white pine would later become our state tree.

Tate House Executive Director Holly K. Hurd. Courtesy photo

During the colonial period, many men worked felling the trees, moving the giant trunks using teams of oxen and floating the masts to the mast port at what is today Clarks Point in Portland Harbor. Famous Mainers Col. Thomas Westbrook (whom the city of Westbrook is named after), his nephew Nathaniel Knight and Gen. Samuel Waldo (whom Waldoboro is named after) were in charge of procuring the mast logs and bringing them to the mast port.

Specially-built mast ships took the “sticks,” as they were called, to England. The mast ships had a hatch built into their sterns so that the long mast logs could be loaded directly into the hull of the vessel. They were too long to be lowered into a traditional ship’s hatch.

The mast trade became a point of contention between settlers and the Crown. This contributed to revolutionary sentiment in Falmouth, today Portland. In 1775, things came to a head when revolutionary Col. Samuel Thompson, of Brunswick, arrested Junior Mast Agent Edward Parry. Soon after, Tory Capt. Thomas Coulson had his efforts to load the royal mast ship Minerva thwarted by local rebels. British Lt. Henry Mowat, arrived in the naval vessel Canceaux in an attempt to force the issue.

The revolutionary-leaning members of the community kept the mast logs hidden upriver, away from the British agents. While walking on Mountjoy’s Hill (known today as Munjoy Hill), Mowat was captured by a contingent of revolutionary militia.


Mowat was later released by the militia, only to return to Falmouth several months later with a small armada. According to Tate House, “Crown of the Maine Mast Trade,” by William David Barry and Frances W. Peabody: “On the direct orders of Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, a flotilla under Lieutenant Mowat reduced the center of town, and its shipping, to charred remnants. The navy had been deprived of its vital ‘sticks’; now nobody would have them.”

Mowat bombarded the city for most of the day and then sent in the royal marines to burn the few public buildings that remained.

The Tate House, built for the King’s Senior Mast Agent George Tate in Stroudwater village, survived the bombardment. Built in 1755, the Tate House is the oldest building in Portland. Its location along the Stroudwater River allowed it to survive both Mowat’s raid and the Great Fire of 1866. Today, the Tate House is operated as a museum.

Please join us on the evening of Sept. 20 to discover more information about this fascinating topic.

South Portland Historical Society offers a free Online Museum with over 16,000 images available for viewing with a keyword search. You can find it at and, if you appreciate what we do, feel free to make a donation by using the donation button on the home page. If you have photographs or other information to share about South Portland’s past, we would love to hear from you. South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at, or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

Seth Goldstein is the Development Director of the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the Director of the Society’s Cushing’s Point Museum.

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