Monson's 175th Anniversary Celebration
An Historical Perspective: Address by Monson Town Historian Althea Haggstrom French
Delivered at the Town's Celebration Ceremony on Saturday, June 28, 1997
We have gathered here today to honor and pay tribute to the town of Monson on the anniversary of her 175th birthday.
It is only fitting that we pause for a few moments to remember the courageous people who left the security of their homes to go into the wilderness with dreams of a new beginning.
The territory which in 1820 became the State of Maine was in the possession of Massachusetts. In 1811 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts gave a part of a township to Hebron Academy and the remainder to Monson Academy in Monson, Massachusetts. The Academies offered free land to those who would clear the land and settle upon it.
In 1816, a young man, Joseph Bearce from the town of Hebron left on foot, traveling to the land he had chosen. On arrival to the land which later was to become the Town of Monson, he cleared a field and built a small log cabin. He returned to Hebron and in the summer of 1818 he married Nancy Ricker. Their dream of a beginning together was short lived as he died in the autumn of 1818.
Other young men and families followed his path, clearing land and building homes on the Hebron Grant. In 1820, families began arriving from Monson, Mass. to settle on the Monson Academy Grant.
Monson was fortunate as many of the first settlers were educated as well as having a strong religious background which had a tremendous effect on the growth of the town.
The first public building to be built in the village was a small schoolhouse. This building known as the Centre School was utilized not only as a school but also where meetings and religious services were held.
The small settlement known as "Cademy Town" was incorporated on Feb. 8, 1822 as the Town of Monson. The incorporation of Monson would bring about the Construction of many buildings in the center of town, which included the erecting of the Congregational Church in 1831, the Baptist Church in 1845 and Monson Academy in 1847. Public transportation was by stage coach, covering a route from Greenville to Bangor. By 1860 there was a small thriving village established at the outlet of Lake Hebron.
In March of 1860, the first Monson Academy burned. Construction of a new building was underway. when on a Sunday in May, the word fire was heard again. When the sun set that evening the fire had destroyed the Congregational Church, homes, stores and two hotels. A total of 40 buildings lay in ashes. One can only imagine what the people were feeling. Certainly one of hopelessness and despair but with the strength, hope and faith in God, people began to build a new and better town.
In the midst of the construction, a civil war in 1861 was upon the country. The town answered the call, sending many men to serve in the Maine regiments.
One of the most important events in the life of Monson occurred in 1870 with the discovery of slate by William G. Jones, a Welsh immigrant from the slate mining country of Wales. This discovery would secure the future of Monson which brought in outside investors who opened several quarries bringing growth to the town. Monson Maine Slate and Portland Monson Slate Companies eventually became the owners of all the quarries.
Between the years of 1870 and 1890, the Welsh, the Swedish, Finnish and the Canadian immigrants arrived. They bought up the deserted farms, found work at the quarries and opened businesses on Main street.
The Swedish immigrants wanting a place to worship in their native language, built the Swedish Lutheran Church in 1890 and the Swedish Methodist Church in 1892. The Finnish people also held services in these Churches. In time the children went to school and learned English and many Swedes married Americans, hence there no longer was a need for a distinctive Swede Church. The Swedish Methodist Church was bought by the Assembly of God and in 1982 it burned. The Swedish Lutheran Church remains and is owned by the Good Samaritan Mission.
The descendants of the rounding fathers after a period of time, welcomed the immigrants, thus making Monson unique in having many different ethnic groups residing together. Their contribution through the years have been one of tremendous value to the success and survival of Monson.
Monson became a thriving self-sufficient community as everything the residents needed was available to them. There was a population of about 1400 people in the early 1900's. The town was home to several doctors and lawyers. Many organizations were formed along with the Monson Cornet Band. Activities were held in a hall known as Tarr, Spencer or Carlson Hall, depending on the generation it served. The hall was torn down in 1940.
The Monson Narrow Gauge Railroad commenced operation in 1883, hauling slate, passengers, mail and freight to Monson Jot., where it met the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. In the same year, the Monson Maine Slate Co. built the Lake Hebron Hotel overlooking Lake Hebron. It was destroyed by fire in 1910.
The Indian Point Corporation was formed and land purchased in 1890 on Lake Hebron. Today, Lake Hebron and Monson Pond are surrounded by many cottages and homes.
Fires continued to ravage the village as sections on Main Street were destroyed in 1888-97-99-1910 and 1911. The first village elementary school, called the "Old School" was located south of Monson Academy. It was consumed by fire in 1899. A new elementary school was built on the north side of the Academy in 1902. After many years without a substantial way to fight the fires, the town voted in 1937 to purchase a fire engine and the first volunteer Monson Fire Department was organized.
Between the years of 1908 and 1945, the town would experience the arrival of electricity, the telephone, the automobile, the effects of World War 1, the great depression of 1929 and the involvement of the United States in 1941 of World War II.
Monson Maine Slate Co., one of the town's largest employers closed its doors in 1943 and the Monson Railroad was abandoned. The town was left with only one employer, the Portland-Monson Slate Co.
The town watched as their sons and daughters left to serve in the War and the many families leave to find work.
With the end of World War II in 1945 and the return of many service men and women to Monson there was a desperate need for the town to provide employment.
A Board of Trade was formed by the merchants for the purpose of interesting an industry to locate in town.
In 1945, the Moosehead Woodcrafter's plant in Greenville burned. The owners met with the Monson Board of Trade and agreed to locate in the vacated Monson Maine Slate Co. buildings. The buildings were purchased and the venture was financed by selling shares of stock which were purchased by many Monson citizens.
The Woodcrafters operated about 1 1/2 years and failed. The spirit of the citizens prevailed and more money was raised. In 1947, John and Tolford Durham agreed to take over the "sick plant". The effort put forth by the townspeople and the Durham brothers was realized and the Moosehead Manufacturing Co., came into being. Over the last fifty years they have been a tremendous asset not only as employers but also a great benefit to the town. They expanded the business in 1960, opening a second plant in Dover-Foxcroft. The fine quality of Moosehead furniture is well-known today throughout the market place.
Monson Academy celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1947 and the Monson Academy Alumni Association was formed. The Monson Alumni and the townspeople joined together and a community hall known as the Monson Gym was built and dedicated in 1951. Basketball reigned as the Monson Academy Slater boys and girls won many championships. The Monson Gym continues to play an important role in the town.
The last 40 years the people have witnessed many changes. The Baptist Church on Pleasant St. was moved in 1959 to Main St. and connected to the Congregational Church forming the Monson Community Church. The Monson United Church of Christ was built in 1984 on the North Guilford Road.
Portland-Monson Slate Co. was purchased by the Tatko family in 1965. The remaining old mills were replaced by a new modern building. The company operate~ on a smaller scale today. Monson slate marks the grave site of President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis at Arlington National Cemetery. In 1994 the company's name was changed to Sheldon Slate Products Co., Inc.
The abandoned slate quarries and land once owned by Monson Maine Slate Co. was sold to Kennedy Slate in 1988.
An event which caused a great loss to the town occurred in 1968 when the residents voted to join the MSAD 68 school system. This brought about the closing of Monson Academy. Grades six through twelve are now transported to Dover-Foxcroft. Monson Academy was demolished in 1984 and the site is occupied by the bandstand. The elementary school building was torn down in 1981 and a new school was erected on the site in 1982 with an addition in 1994.
The Long District School on Rte. 15 was purchased by the Finnish Farmers Club in 1938. In the summer months one can enjoy a Saturday night at the Finn dance.
The Main Street of Monson has been one of constant change as businesses come and go. Several buildings stand empty as a reminder of the past and others have been replaced with a new municipal building, and Post Office. The Monson Museum is located in the old Town Hall owned by the D.A.R.
Many original old homes are gone but new ones have recently appeared on the roads leading in and out of Monson. One of the oldest land marks, the Monson Garage was demolished in 1995. The Olson Family slate house on Tenney Hill was replaced in 1990 by the beautiful Lake Hebron Heights Senior Citizens Apartments. A new Monson Memorial Park on Water Street is utilized as a skating rink in winter and for activities in summer. The Monson railroad station built in the 1880's is being restored.
The Appalachian Trail which passes through Monson has become heavily traveled in the last twenty years. Many hikers have discovered Monson as they stop for supplies, mail and to rest at Shaw's and the Pratt Boarding Home.
At the present time, Monson has a population of about 750 people. The business community is smaller as residents travel to larger towns and cities to obtain the services they require.
Monson is remembered today for its black slate, Moosehead furniture, Appalachian Trail, Monson Academy basketball teams, the Narrow Gauge Railroad and the home of the Swedish and Finnish people.
Many changes have occurred over the last 175 years, but one thing remains the same, the spirit and willingness of the people to serve the community.
As today becomes yesterday, today also becomes tomorrow, a tomorrow with the end of the 20th Century, a tomorrow as we go forward with the hope of a bright future for Monson in the 21st Century.