MONTVILLE, Maine — When Hartley Curtis, 95, is asked his age, he chuckles and points to his T-shirt, which reads, “So far, this is the oldest I’ve ever been.”
The old Mainer seemed more spry than his decades would indicate as he climbed into a horse-drawn, hay-filled wagon Sunday morning and waited to take a tour of a place that has a special significance to him. He was “born at home,” Curtis said, in 1919 on a farm on Frye Mountain and lived there until 1937, when the federal government purchased more than 5,000 acres of farmland, woods and fields there and had the residents leave.
The government initially intended the land for a national park, then a state park, but eventually gave the land to the state of Maine, which created the Frye management game area there in 1958.
“I’m at home when I’m over here,” Curtis said. “I knew everyone on the mountain.”
The nonagenarian, who has lived in Waterville for many years, was one of about 150 people who came to the mountain Sunday for the sixth year of the Frye Mountain heritage wagon tours, organized by the Montville Historical Society.
Debi Stephens, president of the historical society, said that the annual tours have been very popular — and an effective way to teach people about a chapter of the town’s history that few remember.
“You meet some really interesting, talented people in Montville,” she said. “You find there’s an awesome history.”
But what happened at Frye Mountain was particular. The federal government, through the 1937 Bankhead Jones Farm Tenant Act, was able to purchase so-called sub-marginal land directly from farmers for purposes that included land conservation. The 1930s were hard everywhere, but especially on Frye Mountain, according to records. It was the last part of Montville to have roads constructed and it suffered during the severe winter of 1934, when many apple trees perished. Families started to leave the area to find work off the farms, and some were glad to have hard cash from the government for their acres, she said. At that time, the average value per acre of Farmland in Montville and Freedom was just $6, compared to a statewide average of $20.60.
But not everyone was wild to go.
“We stayed till the last minute,” Curtis said, reminiscing about a childhood that was not rich in dollars but in community.
He remembered that some of his neighbors made moonshine — “the hard stuff” — during Prohibition, and talked about the legendary “scythe tree.” That was a tree where farmers that were going off to join the Grand Army of the Republic during the Civil War hung up their scythes on their way off the mountain. Some came back, picked their farming tools back up and started working the land again. Others never did, and their families left the scythes there in memory of their lost boys.
Curtis said that he found the spot where the tree had grown a few years ago while hunting, and his hunting companion found a rusted piece of scythe buried in the ground.
“You could blindfold me, take me out and dump me anywhere,” he said. “I’d find my way out.”
Stephens said a lot of credit for the success of the heritage wagon tours needs to go to the teamsters, who volunteer their time and teams of muscular draft horses and Percherons to bring people around the mountain’s dirt roads. Kris Fraser of Fraser Farms in Plymouth said that he brought his team on Sunday because Elmin Mitchell, a Montville teamster driver in his 80s, was ill and could not make it to the event that he helped create.
“I came because Elmin asked me,” Fraser said. “I think it’s really neat. Neat history.”
Passengers such as Gene and Marianne Randall of Winter Park, Florida, agreed. They were spending a month with family in Maine to get away from the heat.
“We came up to cool off, and we got more than our money’s worth,” Gene Randall said. “This is all brand-new history to us.”