Coastal History: Missing livestock? Check the local pound

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I used to live in Oklahoma, and one day I woke up to find a beautiful stray white horse on my property. Animal Control was called, and it was duly hauled away.

Soon after, I made the boneheaded decision to allow a co-worker to keep two ponies at my place. They covered all my grass in fertilizer, tried to kick me, and burst through the old wire fence onto my neighbor’s property, where they proceeded to wreak havoc with his own elderly horses.

The curse of stray livestock may never happen to you, but it was a common problem in the old days of Maine.

According to the Harpswell Historical Society, one of the first Maine laws enacted after statehood in 1820 charged each town with building a pound “wherein horses, asses, mules, swine, goats, sheep, and cattle may be impounded and kept.”

One of the earliest existing pounds is in Harpswell Center, where early town meetings were apparently full of angry people who were tired of stray animals ruining their pasture land and gardens. Besides having his crops ruined, a farmer sometimes had to deal with his female animals breeding with invasive males from other farms.

The problem was that pastures were large, and fencing them was difficult and expensive. It was easy for animals to escape and cause problems. The solution was the construction of pounds and the appointment of official pound keepers.

At first, keepers would keep strays in their barns or private pasture, but soon new pounds were built of heavy timber. Later the towns would pay to have them built of stone, like the 1793 example across the road from the old Harpswell meeting house.

If somebody captured a stray animal on their property, they would take it to the pound to be locked up. In order to retrieve the animal, the owner would have to pay a fine, pay for room and board, and compensate the injured party. In 1810, the town of Harpswell found that a farmer had suffered $3.50 worth of damage from a flock of sheep on his property. Since the animals were worth $1.50 each, he was awarded four of them in compensation.

According to the book “Nearaway Places,” by Lois Stailing, the town of Pownal maintained a “book of creature marks.” The pound keeper assigned each farmer a particular mark, which had to be notched in the ears of his livestock. When an animal came to the pound, the pound keeper could examine the ear and discover who needed to be fined. In 1835, the fines in Pownal were 25 cents per horse per day, and 13 cents per cow.

As is usually the case, government regulation of cattle pounds became extremely onerous over time. Stray animals became less of a problem as fencing improved and towns became less rural. By the 1880s, farmers were moving to town or heading west to the prairies, and cattle pounds fell out of use.

It’s amazing, then, that 21 or more of the old structures are still standing in Maine.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook.You can reach him at zacmcdorr@gmail.com.

The Harpswell Cattle Pound.

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