Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series of posts about the intriguing histories of Maine communities.
China is located in Kennebec County, 17 miles northeast of Augusta. Considered a resort community, year-round and summer residents enjoy approximately 119,000 feet of frontage on China Lake, plus most of Threemile Pond and a bit of Branch Pond. (Most of Branch Pond is in Palermo, just to the east.)
The town was settled in 1774, following the survey of John “Black” Jones and Abraham Burrill, the area east of Vassalboro, and away from the river, and was initially named Jones Plantation. It was absorbed by Harlem from 1796 to 1818, not in tribute to the Harlem we think of immediately, but for Haarlem, Netherlands. This Haarlem is the capital of North Holland, 15 minutes from Amsterdam, exports flower bulbs, and generally sounds lovely.
On February 5, 1818, China was formally organized from portions of Harlem, Albion and Winslow as the 223rd town in Maine.
Town lore has it that the name “China” came from a favorite hymn of then-representative to the Massachusetts Legislature and resident Japheth C. Washburn; the hymn was called “China.” The Census of 1820 reported 894 people in China, and 862 in Harlem, taken together the 4th most populous town in the county.
Villages were established early on. China Village, South China, Weeks Mills and Branch Mills were hubs of commercial activity, which unfortunately decreased with the loss of the railroad and contributed to the overall decline in population in the mid-20th century. One could safely say that China has bounced back in this century; the 2012-13 population stood at 4,328.
Citizens of note include Laroy Sunderland Starrett (1836-1922), and Rufus Matthew Jones (1863-1948).
Starrett was a businessman and prolific inventor, holding nearly 100 patents on tools and measuring instruments. He founded the L.S. Starrett Company in Athol, Mass., in 1880, and it’s still going strong.
The description of him on the company’s website speaks volumes: “L.S. Starrett’s outstanding characteristic was confidence in himself; he was a man who in spite of one setback after another refused to admit defeat. He had unusual ability, vision and enterprise, but without his high courage this story of the foundation and growth of ‘the world’s greatest toolmakers’ could never have been written.” Starrett now produces 5,000 variations of precision tools and related items, with distributors in Maine.
Rufus Jones was another accomplished man: An influential Quaker, writer, philosopher and professor, he was born in South China. A graduate of Haverford, he taught philosophy and psychology there for 38 years. He wrote extensively on Quakerism and mysticism, and helped found the American Friends Service Committee. Quakers remain in the area, and there is a Quaker summer camp still operating in South China after 50 years.
Maine State Library in Augusta holds no less than 65 titles of Jones’. The South China Public Library has an impressive collection of his works as well. Would you believe that it is the oldest continuously operating public library in the state, opening its doors in 1830?
Last to be mentioned here, but certainly not the least of China’s highlights, is Erskine Academy. Founded in 1883, at present it is Maine’s fourth largest independent high school, providing quality education to over 570 domestic and international students.
China has a lot to offer. It can truly be described as having personality, beauty and brains. Take a drive to visit sometime soon.
Emily A. Schroeder is staff genealogist at the Maine State Library.