FREEPORT — After 151 years, Rufus Soule has come home, thanks to the Freeport Historical Society and nine generous donors.
Last month, the society attended an event at the Skinner Auction House in Boston, expecting to pay anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 for two portraits: one of Soule and the other of his first wife, Susan Mitchell Soule.
Thankfully, Collections Manager Holly Hurd said the society ended up paying significantly less than the appraised value, although she would not disclose the exact amount because it’s the society’s policy not to announce the value of its collections.
According to Executive Director Jim Cram, the group of donors who made the purchase possible included friends and members of the Soule-Mates – an informal group of Soule descendants.
The name Soule, or either of its adaptations – Sowle or Soulis – is still a part of Freeport. In fact, Cram said Rufus Soule is his third great uncle.
Soule was born in 1785 and was an eminent shipbuilder in Maine. He started building mostly sailing vessels in the 1830s and, with his son, Rufus C. Soule, built approximately 100 vessels at Porters Landing.
“That’s become a legendary shipbuilding location,” Hurd said, noting the most famous ship constructed there, Dash, was one of the most successful “privateering” ships during the War of 1812.
“If we add up all the known (ships) that were built during that time period in Freeport … there were about 100 total built everywhere else by everyone else,” Hurd said. “As far as his productivity, (Soule is) the highest, most productive shipbuilder in Freeport.”
Shipbuilding aside, Soule’s legacy is an “honorable” one. He served as a Democratic representative in the Maine Legislature from 1832-1838, was a justice of the peace, and known throughout his community as “Honorable Rufus.”
He and Susan Mitchell Soule had 11 children together. She died in 1853 at age 67.
Soule remarried twice before he died 14 years later in 1867, at the age of 82. Both he and his first wife are buried in the Porters Landing Cemetery.
Although they’re unsigned, the portraits are thought to have been painted by William Matthew Prior, a Maine-born American folk artist known for his portraits, particularly of families and children. He is said to have trained under Charles Codman, who spent his career painting land and seascapes in Portland.
Acquiring the paintings, Hurd said, was a team effort. She did the research on the Soules, Cram spearheaded fundraising, and Arielle Kellerman, the society’s programs and administrative manager, attended the auction.
Only one other person bid on the portraits, which Kellerman said was strange because there are quite a few Prior collectors in Maine.
“One of the reasons there weren’t as many bidders was because of their physical age in the portraits,” Kellerman said. The portraits depict the Soules in their 50s and Kellerman said in auctions, bidders typically look for portraits of younger faces.
The painting style, Kellerman added, might have deterred bidders as well. Prior was known for his folk art, which she said looks “primitive.” The Soule portraits, however, are thought to be some of his earlier work and more realistic.
“For us, what mattered more is who they are, not who painted them,” Hurd said. A bonus, Kellerman added, was that the two portraits had stayed together.
“Pairs are hard to come by,” she said.
The society also owns and displays the portraits of Soule’s cousin, who was another well-known shipbuilder in South Freeport, Henchman Soule, and his wife Lydia.
“We don’t have too many artifacts associated with the shipbuilding at Porters Landing,” Hurd said.
The portraits will be on display in the society as part of the Freeport artwork exhibit until April 27. Afterward, Hurd said, they’ll likely be hung upstairs.
According to Kellerman the society is hoping to learn more about the consignor, who they know is a woman from Westbrook, and how she acquired the paintings.
“We’re just super excited that we got them,” Hurd added. “They’re a great addition to our collections.”
Arielle Kellerman, Freeport Historical Society programs and administration manager, left , Executive Director Jim Cram, and Collections Manager and Curator Holly Hurd with portraits of Susan and Rufus Soule, which the society acquired last month at auction.