Life in a Northern Town

It all started with a dollar and a handshake.

It’s important to start at the beginning, and the beginning in this story is over 200 years old. Long before Sanford, Maine, became the hayday of industrialization, my ancestors were finding their way to this abundant corner of the earth, having stepped off their boats so recently that their english accents had not yet begun to fade.

As I stood on the shore of Square Pond, or walked barefoot (always, always barefoot) through the woods, I sometimes felt the need to blink my eyes, to clear my vision of all the layers of history. Looking out across the sweet waters, I saw not only jet skis, but also my father and his cousin rowing their dinghy to the unsettled shores on the other side, drawn by fantasies of what they would find. I saw the Lesher family hauling lumber across the sand bar in their horse and buggy to build the first camp on Blueberry Island. Ghosts of abundant wildlife now gone, having been stripped from the land by the greedy jaws of metal traps, still bent their necks at the lake edge, tasting. Like substratum in the air, there are the original indigenous inhabitants, catching fish, then loggers, trappers, the Victorians, the Edwardians, the cusp of the modern era. My gram’s footsteps still depress the mossy path down the shore, even though the trees now obscure it in most parts and it was impossible to look at the bald eagle that now roosts in the tallest tree, without wondering which white haired ancestor it could be.

The Eagle family arrived after the death of my Great Aunt Marion Lesher in 1999.

The forest floor is subtle in it’s magic, carpeted by moss that begs you to take off your shoes, to let your feet thrum with the power of the mycelium running just below the surface.


The rare and sacred Indian, or Ghost, Pipe.

British Soldier Lichen.


Five years ago, I pulled my car over onto the side of the road and wept at the news that my father had had a severe stroke. I flew back to Maine that fall, not knowing if it would be the last time I would be able to hold his hand. He survived, but with the compromise of being paralyzed on his left side and therefore no longer being able to travel. My mother locked the door of camp that November, and until this summer, it had not been opened since.

The long absence of warm presence had allowed the spirits to gain a good foothold, and so I found them whispering to me in my dreams, calling me to remember. The memories are cellular, DNA resonating like the plucked strings of a guitar.

My Gram, Nellie M. Bodwell (later Mrs. Roy F. Good) grew up in a large beautiful house on the corner of School and Bodwell streets in downtown Sanford. It is also the same house that my father grew up in.

The house was bought from my Gram in the 80’s and has not been lived in since. It is in such extreme disrepair that the front steps have crumbled and the roof is caving in. I have memories of my gram on the sunporch and of a secret stairwell in the closet. It has been so long since I stepped foot inside, and yet I still found myself with shaky tears.

My family on the Bodwell side goes back to Sanford into the late 1700’s.

School st. in 1908. My Gram would have been about 10 years old and it is completely possible that she knew these children, or perhaps is even one of them. Her house would be on the right, just out of the shot.

My Great Gramps, William Bodwell, was one of the first to have a camp on Square Pond, a beautiful, undeveloped lake in the neighboring town of Acton . The land around the lake had been logged, and was just starting to “grow back”.

Great Gramps Bodwell

With open beam attic rooms and an attached “ice house” for storing chunks of ice from the lake, the Bodwell Camp was as much my home in the summer as our own camp down the shore. During my childhood it was owned by my Great Aunt Marion, and then passed to her daughter, my “Aunt” Helene. The house was sold the same year my father had his stroke, and is now lived in full time by strangers. Not being able to walk down the shore to the grassy slope dotted with wild strawberries and black eyed susans, and then to the steps leading to the always open front door, feels like an amputation.

The Bodwell Camp

Bodwells in front of their camp, before a hunting party. The twinkly fella in the middle left with the hat is my Great Gramps, and I believe that’s my Great Grandmother to the right. Above her may be my Grandfather.

Great Gramps when he was young, 2nd from the left, at Goose Pond. Gramps was a big huntsman, and Leon Leonwood Bean (as in L.L.) used to come stay at the Bodwell camp, as the two of them were friends.

I have the best memories of sitting on this porch, of climbing the steps with sandy feet to find my Gram and Aunt Marion visiting.

The land around the chain of lakes (Square Pond, Goose and Moussam) were all owned by the textile mills and the mills used the water for hydropower. Eventually, they began selling off parcels of land for town folk and mill workers to have summer homes, or “camps”.

The textile mills were brought to Sanford by Thomas Goodall in the mid to late 1800s. What was once a sleepy farmer’s town, Sanford quickly became the hub of the future. At first only manufacturing blankets for carriages, the mills went on to produce the famous “Palm Beach Cloth”, the preferred material for dandy suits.

Almost everyone in town had a connection to, or worked at, the mills. The life of this community was tightly woven into the life of the mills. They even had a girl’s basketball team.

The mills today still reside in the heart of town, but like my gram’s home, they too are crumbling.

There are at least 10 buildings, all built at differing times during before and after the turn of the 20th century.

One of the falls used for hydroelectric.

After The Great War (WWI), an army dentist made his way into town. He met Nellie at his office one day and well…once she had kicked her current boyfriend to the curb, the rest, as they always say, is history.

Roy Good and Nellie Bodwell Good, on their honeymoon.

Mr. Good was best friends with a high up employee of the mills, Jim Campbell. “Uncle Jim” owned a great estate that my father remembers playing at during his fondest childhood memories. Uncle Jim was in charge of managing the lake properties. My Grandfather was interested in a parcel of eight acres, immediately adjacent to the Bodwell Camp. There was already a small squater’s camp on the property, and my Grandfather had his eye on the tip of a peninsula for the perfect summer home. He bought the squatter’s shack for $375, so as not to put the poor fellow out. As for the rest of the land, Uncle Jim was willing to give it away, but my Grandfather insisted on the asking price of one dollar. And a handshake.

Mr. Good built his summer camp with the help of some friends. It still resides on the original eight acres, nestled in a little grove at the end of a peninsula, with a glassy cove out back where the squatter’s shack is now known as “little camp”.

Looking across to Blueberry Island, at sunrise.

The cove.

Through the looking glass.

Our first week at camp, we took a sunset canoe ride out to the island and back. I saw our camp sitting tiny on the shore and teared up, realizing that this is my father’s legacy. He has worked hard to keep this home in the family, so that myself and my siblings are able to experience the same magic that he did as a kid. On the way back, as we reached the middle of the lake, suddenly it seemed that we were going neither forward nor back, but had always been in this place, paddling, sights set on shore. I was myself, and I was all ancestors, those who have already passed and those who will in the future. As the lights of life faded out behind, suddenly arising in the mist was this little house in the woods, and all would be, will be silent, except the water lapping at the prow, except the far off cry of a loon.

No wonder the place is full of ghosts, since I too, hope that it will be these shores that welcome me home for all time.


12 thoughts on “Life in a Northern Town

  1. It fills up my heart with potent joy to see these eastern forests and to hear about your family history in such a perfect place as Maine. Thank you for sharing this with us, Mary. You know it as well as anyone that places always, always remember the people who love them. Camp will never fail to welcome you.

    Also, please, please, please read the book Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Your photos made me feel like I was looking at images straight from the text.

    Love you.


  2. It’s so heartwarming to hear your family’s stories. So many stories have been lost through the years. We’ve often travelled through areas with houses crumbling, wondering about the stories trapped inside. Here locally, there are several houses I would love to explore. We live in an area of old mills, closed in the name of progress. Thank you so much for sharing with us, Mary.

  3. I feel like you should be there Mary. Belonging. That is clear. You’ve spoken of that kind of childhood tactile sensory history that ties us to places, how that personal history passes through each generation when those places are shared and remembered by living them…and I can hear it here in your words so clearly. Camp needs to stay with you and yours. It just does. Also, the likeness between you and Nellie is immense! The eyes maybe? Face shape? I think I can see she has grace and humour – much like you – maybe that is what it is I see too. All that aside, I love her hair. Beautiful walk through your family history sweetness, I really enjoyed it all. And I will delight in reading thanks for the chat yesterday, your thoughts about the Steve situation I passed on to him, and it helped alot.

  4. oh, maine! i’ve always wanted to go! and you just made me want to go even more. so gorgeous. that house is amazing. thanks for sharing this!

  5. Wow. I can’t get over how much I see YOU in that first photo of Nellie. It’s really striking. Also, like Teeny was getting at, it goes beyond the facial similarities to a likeness of spirit perhaps?

    The story of camp, the story of your family, you’ve told it so beautifully here Mary. Your connection to this magical place is palpable. Thanks so much for sharing, I too look forward to hearing more 🙂

    p.s. Your Gramps hung out with L.L. Bean, how rad is that?!

  6. man, i see you in Nellie! this is so beautiful mary. once again you have put into words so perfectly feelings from the heart. the attachment to homes always fascinates me so much. i suppose it’s the memories that really make us feel love for a place. i don’t know but what you said is how i have felt many times before. learning about your family history is very interesting. all the buildings and mills are gorgeous, even in their deteriorating state. you family’s camp is seriously magical! those last three pictures are timeless.

  7. This is the beginning of a most beautiful rich and deeply meaningful novel or autobiography, which chapter is it, One ? You write so beautifully, I would quite happily loose myself in your world, wonder and wander with you and your blessed ancestors. The lake is a holy land and with it all the holiness of lives lived and dreams fulfilled and dreams being relived. I am so delighted you have such a serene place to be, and to add to it all -you holidayed there, with the joyous thoughts of marriage in your hearts.
    Blessings to you and upon all the lovely faces of your fotos x

  8. that photo of fern (now your banner for obvious reasons) is so gorgeous! i’m having vicarious northeast nostalgia reading through these posts. 🙂

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