HARPSWELL — Their ancestors walked across the frozen mudflats to build ships at the Pennell shipyard. They constructed the old town hall in West Harpswell, and cleared fields that that have long since reverted back into forests.
Between them, the members of the Carrying Place Assembly have nearly 1000 years of residency in Harpswell.
But they feel the town’s history, and their own, has been disgraced by a 1998 decision to alter what they believe is the historical boundary between Harpswell and Brunswick.
Now, they would like to see that boundary restored.
The official town line runs along a low marsh through a field just north of Skolfield Drive on Route 123. A slim, Department of Transportation sign marks the spot. Seven hundred and fifty feet up the road, the Carrying Place Assembly has erected its own sign, where it believes the line should be.
It may not seem like much of a difference, but to the members of the group, the loss is profound.
“If you don’t have your history, you don’t have anything,” said Amy Haible.
During Harpswell’s 250th anniversary in 2008, the people who would become the Carrying Place Assembly started talking about trying to resurrect the old town line. The boundary had been established in 1998 after a series of disputes among shellfishermen who worked the mudflats between the two towns. Both sides claimed the other was digging illegally.
Some Carrying Place Assembly members had voted in support of the decision that set the boundary where it is now, but others, like Samuel Alexander, always had an uneasy feeling about the way that decision was made.
“There was a vote taken before the townspeople heard any opposition to it,” he said. “My family had always said that the boundary between Harpswell and Brunswick was at the head of Middle Bay at the high water mark.”
Alexander said he told this to Harpswell residents at the 1998 Town Meeting, only to have the town’s attorney write it off as “anecdotal.”
But 13 years and several trips to the Massachusetts Archives later, Alexander and the other members of the Carrying Place Assembly believe they have new, compelling evidence to support their argument.
They provided copies of a 1749 document that shows how the General Court of Massachusetts deeded a large area of land to Harpswell (then North Yarmouth). But in 1998, that area was given to Brunswick.
“The voters did not know about this,” said Gareth Anderson, referencing the 1749 document. “The map they had was incorrect, so they could not make a proper decision.”
Other than preserving Harpswell’s history, reversing the 1998 decision is what motivates the Carrying Place Assembly.
Member John Loyd called the 1998 decision as “an embarrassment” because it was not based upon thorough research into the town line’s historical location.
“It’s really a matter of historical accuracy; you don’t want to give away part of your town and you certainly don’t want to give it away mistakenly,” he said.
Loyd said he voted for the 1998 agreement out of ignorance. “I know I would have voted against that agreement had the information I had today been available then,” he said.
Like Loyd, Harpswell resident Linda Barton said she regrets the 1998 decision. “It seems like it was a mistake,” she said. “I think there was a lack of due diligence on the part of town officials at the time. They said they didn’t find the boundary, but I think they didn’t do their homework.”
Barton’s family, the Skolfields, has lived in Harpswell since the 1720s and owns property on both sides of the town line.
“My grandfather always said that the Brunswick town line is farther north than it is now,” she said. “I think that the Carrying Place Assembly has its history right, there’s no question about it.”
In May 2009, the issue was taken up by the Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee, where lawmakers voted against moving the boundary. The chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Debbie Simpson, D-Auburn, argued that supporters of the cause should have discovered the evidence in 1998. In a May 2009 interview, she said the committee could become mired in the dispute each time new evidence is uncovered.
But the members of the committee have changed, and this time around the Carrying Place Assembly is more confident, thanks to the new evidence. Members have already succeeded in getting Harpswell Board of Selectmen Chairman Jim Henderson to propose a question on the 2011 Town Meeting warrant that would allocate $10,000 toward their cause.
“I think the town has a deep interest in its history and sense of community,” Henderson said. “It doesn’t see itself as a place where arbitrary lines are drawn.”
Henderson said he considers the effort to restore the town line as “not disconnected from the West Harpswell School closure issue.”
He believes both issues are ultimately about “retaining the sense of community in Harpswell and its historic appearance. … The landscape, the nature of the communities, and by extension the original boundaries of the town.”
For Carrying Place Assembly members, the argument for changing the town line is even simpler.
“It’s your history,” Haible said. “It’s part of who you are.”
Emily Guerin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Amy Haible, Sam Alexander and Malcolm Whitman of The Carrying Place Assembly stand in front of the sign they erected to mark the historical border between Harpswell and Brunswick. They show on a map where they believe the town line should be placed.
BRUNSWICK — Residents and town officials are bracing themselves for another effort by the Carrying Place Assembly to change the boundary between Harpswell and Brunswick.
If the Carrying Place Assembly succeeds in lobbying the Maine Legislature’s State and Local Government Committee to alter the town line, Brunswick will lose 40 acres of upland and hundreds of acres of mudflats in Middle Bay.
“I do not think the town line needs to be revisited, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Town Councilor Suzan Wilson, chairwoman of the Marine Resources Committee.
“It’s good to give encouragement and praise to amateur historians to inform us,” she said about Carrying Place Assembly members, “but how far down the pipeline do you want to go to correct historic wrongs?”
Wilson said she thought the Carrying Place Assembly should have been satisfied with the sign they placed on the historic boundary between the towns, and that a campaign to change the town line is inappropriate.
“It should have been one of those ‘educate us all, get a historical marker’ programs,” she said. “There’s a lot more appropriate ways to recognize one’s history.”
Marine Resource Officer Dan Deveraux said he worries that raising the town line issue would again create conflict between the shellfishermen of Harpswell and Brunswick, who harvest clams in the mudflats on both sides of the border. In the late 1990s, many clammers were issued citations for harvesting shellfish without permits, only to have a court throw out the charges due to the unclear boundary between the towns.
Devereaux said that since the 1998 decision about the town line, animosity between shellfishermen in the two towns has died down.
“Everyone seemed to be happy when it came to fishing rights,” he said of the agreement.
But Devereaux said tempers flared again in 2008 when the Carrying Place Assembly began its campaign to change the boundary.
“It’s kind of like picking a scab off an old wound and it’s bleeding again when it was just starting to heal,” he said.
Although members of the Carrying Place Assembly are not shellfishermen and maintain that they have no interest in the potential economic value of the mudflats, Councilor Wilson is skeptical.
“To me it’s a little disingenuous to come out publicly and say it’s not about material things,” she said.
Devereaux said that the contested mudflats in upper Middle Bay are “very productive” and yield 2,600 to 5,500 bushels of soft-shell clams per year. He added that if the mud flats become part of Harpswell, eight to 10 Brunswick shellfish harvesting licenses would be lost.
Devereaux added that Brunwick shellfishermen have worked hard to increase the productivity of the clam flats.
“If they replaced the line,” he said, “… all that work Brunswick harvesters did in there wouldn’t benefit them.”
— Emily Guerin
The official Brunswick/Harpswell town line sign sits on Harpswell Road. Farther down the road, the Carrying Place Assembly has erected a sign where the border was historically, and where its members believe the current town line should be.