Historian: Quakers once 'a significant force' in Falmouth

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FALMOUTH — Little did amateur historian Wayne Cobb know when he began tracing the origins of the road once known as Quaker Lane that he would become a member of the Portland Friends or something of an expert on the history of Quakers in greater Portland.

Now the information Cobb has collected will be shared during a special Falmouth 300 event scheduled for Feb. 4 at the historic Quaker B&B on Gray Road.

There will be two sessions, at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but reservations are required by going to the Falmouth 300 website at www.Falmouth300.org.

Once known as Hall’s Tavern, the bed-and-breakfast inn was built around 1780 and is one of about 17 Quaker-built structures still in existence in town, according to Cobb. He said most of those buildings are still private homes, with one dating back to perhaps 1740.

Cobb, who lives in Portland’s North Deering neighborhood, said prior to the Revolutionary War, between 25 and 30 Quaker families were clustered around the Presumpscot River near Blackstrap Hill in Falmouth. At the high point, he said, the local Quaker community may have numbered between 300 and 400.

Likely the first Quaker meetinghouse ever erected in Maine was built in what’s now Falmouth in the early 1750s, Cobb said. He said the burying ground that accompanied the meetinghouse is still visible, but is on private property.

Cobb said for about 50 years or so in the mid-1700s, “close to half the land mass in Falmouth was owned by Quakers and they were a significant force” in the local community. “By and large they were farmers,” he said.

But the Quakers also built several mills on the Presumpscot, including one at what was then called the lower falls and one in West Falmouth. Cobb said James Winslow was the first Quaker in the area, and it was one of his descendants who founded the first known food-canning business in the world.

While Cobb said Quakers were a force in Falmouth while they lived in town, “their legacy really shows up most in the 19th century, when the Winslow descendants became well-known industrialists, inventors and abolitionists.”

The Quakers in and around Falmouth have been “largely forgotten” now, Cobb said, but “they’re really responsible for much of the early commercial success of Portland. And in their day, they were well respected and well thought of in the community.”

That was not true early on.

The Religious Society of Friends, or Quakerism, started in England around 1650. They differed from the other Christian sects of the time because early Quakers believed they didn’t need clergy to interpret God for them.

Quakers also believed firmly in social, gender and spiritual equality, something that didn’t go over well with the established authorities of the day.

Like any other Christian congregation, Quakers could disagree about their individual religious beliefs and practices, but Friends generally supported all aspects of social justice from abolition to women’s suffrage.

Quakers may have begun migrating to Maine in the mid-1700s because they were often persecuted by the Puritans in what was then the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the late 1600s there was a law banning Quakers, and in 1660 and 1661 several Quakers were hanged for their beliefs.

And, in the early days of Quakerism in Maine, several local clergy complained about them and their influence, with one calling for a time of fasting and earnest prayer in 1740 to combat their spread.

Cobb said James Winslow first came to the area in 1728 with his wife and their seven children, who ranged in age from 1 to 19. He doesn’t believe that Winslow was a Quaker when he first arrived, but that he converted at a later date.

At one time the communities of Portland, South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook and Falmouth were all called Falmouth. Cobb said Winslow originally settled within what’s now the Portland municipal boundaries and only moved to the Blackstrap area along the Presumpscot in the early 1730s.

“Eminent Portland historian William Willis relates that, after leaving his grist mill behind, James Winslow ‘removed … northerly to the Presumpscot River, near where its course is turned southerly by Blackstrap Hill,'” Cobb says in an essay published in the Portland Friends newsletter.

“This description corresponds well to the site of the earliest Quaker meetinghouse in Maine, on what was once called Quaker Lane in today’s town of Falmouth. There is good reason to conclude that James’ home existed north of present-day Blackstrap Road in Falmouth, touching the south bank of the Presumpscot,” the essay states.

“When the first regular Quaker meetings began here, they included James Winslow and his son Benjamin, as well as four men from Harpswell,” Cobb’s essay adds.

In addition, according to the essay, “At a monthly meeting in Falmouth in 1752, James Winslow granted the Society of Friends a one-acre parcel of land near his home on the Presumpscot River at Blackstrap on which to place a meetinghouse and burying ground.”

Cobb said exploring this aspect of Falmouth’s history is important because it not only highlights the “multicultural aspect of our past,” but it’s also essential to “understand there’s more to our history then what we read in textbooks.”

“We all need to step back and look deeper,” he said, “to understand that there are lots of cultural influences that affect our surroundings.”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

The historic Quaker B&B on Gray Road will be the site of a special Falmouth 300 program on Quakerism in town on Feb. 4. Once known as Hall’s Tavern, the bed and breakfast was built around 1780.

The West Falmouth mill was once owned and operated by the Winslow family, the first prominent Quakers to settle in town.