All Maine Matters
Because All of Maine DOES Matter!
Vol. 1, No. 9 September 2006 FREE
Profiles in Rural Maine: Smyrna, Maine
By Ken Anderson
Located north of Island Falls and west of Houlton, in Maine's Aroostook County, Smyrna is home to just over four hundred people, about as many as were ever there.
With Smyrna Mills as its principle settlement, Smyrna was settled in about 1830, when the State of Maine granted a township to a Methodist minister and land surveyor from Royalton, Vermont, with the understanding that he would populate the land with at least a hundred settlers within five years, build a saw mill, a grist mill, and a schoolhouse. The minister, Nehemiah Leavitt, chose as his home, a site near where Lilley Farms is now located, on Smyrna Center Road; there he built a cabin for he and his wife.
Unable to fulfill the requirements of the grant, Leavitt asked for and received a five-year extension, but was still unable to meet his part of the bargain. He did, however, survey and incorporate the Town of Smyrna on March 7, 1839, shortly before selling his claim of 23,000 acres to a Mr. Dunn and a Mr. Jefferds, who built saw mill on the east side of the East Branch of the Mattwamkeag River.
Leavitt had wanted to name the town Royalton, after his place of birth, but other settlers prevented him from doing this. Bitter, perhaps about this, but also discouraged about having to quit his claim on the township, legend has it that he named the town Smyrna, after the Turkish city by that name, which was known for being a wicked city.
According to the town's web site, the original charter shows that the name was penned in as "Royalton" with a notation from the Secretary of State's office to strike out the word "Royalton" and replace it with "Smyrna."
Initially, Smyrna was a part of Penobscot County, since Aroostook County was itself incorporated in 1839, nine days after the town. When "The County" was incorporated on March 16, 1839, the land lying north of Mattawamkeag, Kingman and Drew Plantation were taken from Penobscot County and made a part of Aroostook County.
Apart from Nehemiah Leavitt and his wife, the early settlers of Smyrna included John Marley of England, who had lived in Boston for a time before moving north to Smyrna. Even today, there are Marleys living in Smyrna Township, descendants of this early settler.
Being a Methodist minister, other Methodists moves to Smyrna; including the Laughtons, Lyons, and Oaks, as well as other Leavitts, related to the original settler.
William Corliss came to Smyrna from Lubec in 1833, followed shortly thereafter by Elias and Franklin Blodgett. Samuel Drew, a Free Will Baptist minister, came to Smyrna from New Limerick in 1835. Rev. Drew's son, Moses, bought land from his father and built a farm and hotel; running the Yerxa Hotel for twelve years before selling it to built a larger one near the river in town. Moses Drew married John Marley's daughter, who was the first child to be born in Smyrna.
Other early settlers include Alexander Herrick, who came from Norridgewock, and Thomas Hassett from Ireland. William Irish moved to Smyrna from Buckfield, and later moved to Sherman, becoming a Representative to the state legislature, then a Senator representing Aroostook County.
Jonathan Sleeper was an early Smyrna resident, along with his sons, Moses, Daniel, Willam, and Jonathan Jr. George Taylor came from New Hampshire; and Sheubael West from Industry, who is said to have been later committed to an insane asylum in Augusta. William Woods came to Smyrna from Rhode Island. Two brothers, Elias and Ephraim Wiggin, are early settlers, as was Thomas McGary, who came from Ireland, and Ira Webber, from Limerick.
These were the people who were named as residents of Smyrna when the town was incorporated in 1839. Of course, there were women as well, but they were not named, except as someone's wife or daughter.
The 1840 census indicates settlers in Smyrna carrying the following surnames: Adams, Blodgett, Bradbury, Cobwell, Collis, Coodenow, Dilling, Drew, Frost, Hassett, Herrick, Irish, Laughton, Levitt, Lions, Marley, McGary, Oaks, Pingry, Pirkins, Sleeper, Tailor, Webber, White, Wiggins, and Wood.
The 1850 census lists the following surnames: Atherton, Berry, Blodget, Briggs, Clark, Corliss, Donnelly, Drew, Emerson, Estes, Fisher, Garey, Gooch, Goodnough, Green, Ham, Hanscomb, Haskell, Hassett, Hill, Hoyt, Huntley, Jackman, Leavett, Marley, McGarey, McKee, Morrison, Perry, Pingrey, Royal, Sleeper, Steward, Timony, Vernor, Ward, White, and Young.
In 1870, the population of Smyrna was 159. The number had increased to 237 by 1880.
According to George Varney, who published the Gazzetteer of Maine in 1881, Smyrna was then a local hub of activity, and a supply center for the area, and supported three public schools.
Although there have been other churches in Smyrna, including a Baptist Church, there are currently only two: the United Methodist Church and the Amish meeting hall, nearer to Smyrna Center. The original Methodist Church burned in 1932. Rebuilt that same year, it stands today in Smyrna Mills. Other Christian denominations met in schools and in private homes.
Traditionally, a farming and lumbering town, many Smyrna residents are still engaged in these activities, although perhaps to a lesser extent.
Today, Smyrna plays host to an Amish community consisting of about fifteen families, who live and operate a variety of businesses along Route 2, just south of Smyrna Center. Among the Amish businesses are Kauffman Metals, Mt. Timoney Cycle Center, Smyrna Sheds, Sturdi-Bilt Storage Buildings, The Pioneer Place U.S.A., Northeastern Rustic Furniture, and Wholesome Valley Farms as well as other farming operations.
The Amish came to Smyrna in 1996, seeking a rural area in which to found a new community based on Amish faith and tradition, and supported by a work ethic that has proven successful wherever it has been practiced. Headed by Norman Kauffman, the original five families grew to the fifteen that reside there today.
The Amish assist one another as needs arise, as was once seen within most American communities, in a time when people knew and loved their neighbors, but they do not live in community, in the sense of sharing goods in common, as do some other Mennonite groups.
The Amish are Mennonites, who have their roots in the Anabaptist movement which took place at the same time as the Protestant Reformation. While early Anabaptist leaders were initially allied with some of the leaders of the Protestant movement, Anabaptists were later persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike.
In 1536, Menno Simons, a Dutch Catholic priest, joined the Anabaptist movement. His teachings united a group of Anabaptists who were to be called Mennonites.
In 1693, a Swiss bishop by the name of Jacob Amman broke from the Mennonite Church on issues of church discipline, among others. His followers became the Amish. The Amish and Mennonites share similar beliefs concerning baptism and non-resistance, but differ on matters of dress, technology, form of worship, and in some interpretations of Scripture.
Old Order Amish drive horses and buggies rather than cars, do not have electricity in their homes, and send their children to private, one-room schoolhouses rather than to public school, and they attend school only through the eighth grade.
They do, however, use technology when it is necessary for the operations of their businesses, at which many are quite adept, and each Amish colony is unique, in dress as well as their use of technology.
In Smyrna, the Amish use battery-powered devices such as calculators and recorders, and they might even generate their own electricity when necessary for the efficient operation of their businesses. But they don't drive cars or use electricity for the purposes of comfort or entertainment, so you won't find television sets or computers in use, either in their homes or in their businesses. There are a few telephones in the colony, for business purposes, which ring often since business is good.
Their dress is simple, but not uniform. The men wear simple shirts and pants, mostly without pockets, held up by suspenders. The women wear unpatterned frocks, darks stockings and head coverings, not unlike much of rural America before the 1950s.
Families tend to be large, as there is much to be done and each member plays an integral part in ensuring the livelihood and security of the family, each in his or her own way.
While the Amish in Smyrna have in the past generally permitted themselves to be photographed, I strongly suspect that they'd rather not be subjected to tourists (or even newspeople) with cameras, and may object to being photographed on moral grounds, citing Exodus 20:4, considering a photograph to be a graven image. For these reasons, other than to photograph their business operations for the purpose of this profile, I did not photograph the Amish people in Smyrna.
Farming is the traditional occupation of the Amish. When members of the Smyrna community came to Maine from Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, they found the long winters and short growing seasons in Aroostook County to be a challenge, but one that they could meet. Making use of heated greenhouses and nurseries, they found that they could get an early start on the growing season, and their organic produce is sought after.
The Amish in Smyrna have also made use of another traditional Amish trait: craftmanship. One of their businesses, Sturdi-Bilt, owned and operated by the Hochstetler family, employs roughly half the men in the community, constructing an assortment of buildings that can be used for garages, storage buildings, camps, and even residences.
Kauffman Metals manufactures metal roofs and siding. The business is owned by Norman Kauffman, a sharply intelligent man, who is probably older than he looks. Another Amish family in Smyrna operates Mt. Timoney Cycle Center, repairing and customizing bicycles. Durable rustic furniture is designed and built by Northeastern Rustic Furniture, operated by the Esch family.
Leather goods and horse harnesses can be found at the Cedar Meadow Harness Shop, and people come from all over the state for the organic produce which can be found at Pioneer Place U.S.A., a store operated by Chris Hilmy and his family, selling a large and diverse selection of products.
For considerations of price, selection, and quality, you would do well to buy from the Amish in Smyrna.
While the greatest hub of activity in Smyrna today is centered around the Amish community, there are several other active farms in and around Smyrna, including Lilley Farms on Smyrna Center Road. R.C. Logging Supplies seemed to be doing a brisk business, as were other small businesses operating out of homes and small storefronts along Route 2 and 212.
Others have obviously closed long ago. Several empty and collapsing warehouses or potato barns can be seen along the tracks on Station Street, while only the one nearest to Route 2 appears to have been in recent use. Acres of rusting mill or farm machinery can be seen along the south side of Route 2 in Smyrna Mills, none of which seems likely to serve any future purpose except as scrap metal or the subject of photographs taken by curious passersby.
There are a few houses in Smyrna Mills itself, but most of Smyrna's population resides in the rural areas surrounding the town itself; on farms, many of them, or in country houses with large yards that were once in cultivation.Ken Anderson is, among other things, the editor of the online news outlet Magic City Morning Star, on the web at magic-city-news.com.