Bridgton 250: ‘Today we stand united as one people’ — Mike Davis

By Michael J. Davis

Assistant Director

Bridgton Historical Society

Greetings, people of the Town of Bridgton. We stand gathered here today to celebrate a momentous occasion, one which sets our town apart from most in the annals of Maine history.

In our world today, a hundred different causes each compete for our attention, our participation, and our support. These organizations, businesses and ideologies define who we are, and often who our friends are, and there are so many things in our country right now for people to pick sides on that it seems we are increasingly being cast as a society of special interests and competing worldviews. Looking out over this crowd today, I see this diversity represented. We are a nation of individuals, each unique in our own way, and for the surface observer or visitor from afar, this might appear to be the whole of what we are. Just a crowd of people, who happen to live near each other, each competing to advance their own goals and their own interests in this modern age. In too many towns I can think of, this division has become the accepted norm.

But today, here in Bridgton, I do not see a crowd of self-focused individuals. I do not see a crowd of competing interests. Citizens, business owners, friends — I look around us now and see many faces I’ve long known, and some faces I’ve only seen in passing. We are different, it is true. But today, we stand here united, as one people, in recognition of our shared heritage and love for this town, our home.

What better a cause to unite a crowd of individuals more than the history of how long they’ve been individuals, where everything they’ve ever done has happened? We make our mark on Bridgton by our being here. Looking at us now, we represent the current stock of a little town on the edge of a lake, huddled in the backwoods foothills of western Maine. And for its continuance these past two and half centuries, we ourselves should be proud. It’s not easy to run a town — harder, perhaps, than it is to found one. We have survived The Revolution, The Civil War, Two World Wars, and numerous smaller conflicts. We have survived droughts and famines, the great Depression and countless market crashes. We have survived nature’s many slings and arrows: the Ice-Storm of ’98, the Blizzard of ’52, The Flood of ’53 and the Fires of ’47 and ’73, and if I told you how many towns in Maine have been wiped from the map, and just how close Bridgton herself came to collapsing how many times, you’d be shocked. But, we haven’t and, as a local historian, I think I’ve found out why. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is one constant in Bridgton’s history, one thing that has saved us every time, and I see it in all of you right now.

If you’ll permit me to explain. We represent a continuous line of history, handed down from father to son, mother to daughter, longtime resident to newcomer hoping to find a better life. People come to Bridgton for many reasons. But they all stay for one. Community.

Bridgton means a lot to all of us, though probably every one of you here has a differing opinion on just what Bridgton means, or where it should go in the next 50 years. But there is one thing we all can agree on and, standing here now in the tradition of our forefathers, it’s obvious to me. Bridgton lasts. Or, perhaps a better way of putting it would be this…Bridgton endures.

We are standing here today because, 250 years ago, Captain Benjamin Kimball, of Massachusetts Bay Colony, followed the advice of Surveyor Solomon Wood, first Englishman to this region. Solomon Wood came here in 1766 from Boxford, Mass., to map out the Undivided Lands alongside the newly-established settlement of Pigwacket, later Pequawket, later Fryeburg. And Solomon Wood came here armed with compass, sextant and measuring chain, and over the period of two months charted out from the untamed wilderness a map of 250 100-acre lots. No one lived here then; no one had ever lived here, save the seasonal wanderings of migratory Native American tribes, who took a route from Fryeburg to Denmark on a native ridge trail that would later became South High Street.

Solomon Wood took his map of “Pondicherry” back to Massachusetts, where the land parcels were turned over to Speculator Moody Bridges, who began selling parcels of land in newly-named “Bridge’s Town” to anyone willing to settle it. Benjamin Kimball was the first to buy.

Captain Kimball came in 1768 by way of boat, sailing up Long Lake, having set out from Flint’s Town, now Sebago, toward a township which only existed as a name on a piece of paper. He was the first to come. He was followed closely by Jacob Stevens, namesake of Stevens Brook, and between the two of them a trading post, tavern, and the first of many sawmills were established in the same year. From their meager foothold on the northern frontier of English Territory, the Town of Bridgton grew. When our first settlers came here, their associates in Massachusetts were certain they would die. It was foolish, they said, for men of such standing to remove themselves from society to a place both hostile and unknown. A place with no infrastructure, no buildings, and no people. Better someone else go, instead, to set up a homestead that was almost certainly going to fail in its first year, and let them die alone in the snow, frozen and starved, unknown and unremembered. Let someone else do it. It’s not safe.

But the Founders didn’t listen. They came anyway, brought their families, and made this land theirs. They tamed its woods, and slayed its beasts, and made profitable its rivers and fruitful its fields. They made it their home.

The Founders came to Bridgton because they wanted to make a society. They wanted to make a town that was strong, and hearty, and independent. The cowardly did not come to Bridgton, nor did the idle. Bridgton was founded as a place of bravery, and pride, and iron-hard determination. The Founders knew they couldn’t fail. They didn’t have that luxury. They knew that coming here would mean work, some of the hardest work imaginable, to found and sustain a town. To survive. To prosper. And so, while those who were not brave spoke against them, they proudly swore — “We will survive the winters, we will endure the killing frosts and rocky soil, and we will hew out from the unforgiving pine landscape a new place for men to live on this continent. And there, we will be free.”

Both Kimball and Stevens died in 1802, less than 40 years after their arrival, but at the time of their death they were no longer alone. Heeding the call to adventure, to freedom, to an honest frontier life, 646 people had joined them to live in Bridgton. These are the ones we honor here today. The men and women who first took the chance, who believed in Bridgton when no one else would, who were willing to bet their very lives on the idea that Bridgton had promise. From those 600-odd people, there are now over 5,000 of us. If they could be here with us now, if they could stand here today amongst their descendants, amongst a people who still bear that same hopeful determination which first brought them to these shores, why, I daresay they would recognize us all as brothers. This gathering today proves it; we are still united, we are still strong, we are they who stand together in determination against all adversity to fulfill that covenant of ongoing cooperation toward the idea of Bridgton, the idea of our town, in exactly the same way as all those who came before us. Without its people, Bridgton is just what it was 250 years ago; a name on a map. But with its people, Bridgton will continue, Bridgton will outlast, and most importantly, Bridgton will endure. And we are that reason why.

So, in opening this ceremony today, I urge you all to keep that torch burning, keep that idea alive, and fight every day to hold on to what made us so great; our toughness, our kindness, our hope for a brighter tomorrow and a better life for all who come to live here. We owe it to them who gave us this chance to remember their sacrifice and take new strength from our shared identity. So long as we can do that, the sun will still be rising on a town named Bridgton in another 250 years. I’m proud to say that if the people gathered here today are any indication, I’m certain that it will.

Bridgton endures.

On behalf of the Bridgton Historical Society, all those who’ve come before us, and myself personally as a resident, I want to thank each and every one of you for making Bridgton a place unlike anywhere else in America. We truly couldn’t do it without you.

Thank you all.

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