Hard Telling Not Knowing each week tries to answer your burning questions about why things are the way they are in Maine — specifically about Maine culture and history, both long ago and recent, large and small, important and silly. Send your questions to email@example.com.
This week’s question comes from my dear colleague, Judy Harrison, who wanted to know what the deal is with an unusual landmark in Orrington that she drives by on Route 15, on her way to camp in the summers.
What’s the deal with that big circular stone wall on Route 15 in Orrington?
Despite its size, it’s actually somewhat easy to miss the large stone structure, as it blends in with overhanging trees along Route 15, and it’s not near any other well-known landmarks.
But once you see it, you can’t unsee it: the Orrington Pound, a nearly 200-year-old circle constructed out of fieldstone, just a few feet from the side of the road.
Though it looks rather mysterious, like something built by druids to mark the solstice, it was actually constructed by the early residents of Orrington for a much more pedestrian purpose: keeping livestock from running amok around town. It’s a relic from an earlier time when Maine was largely an agricultural state, and most small towns were dominated by farms and farming families.
“At the time, early settlers did not have strong fences to keep marauding farm animals out of their neighbor’s crops and pastures,” said Judith Frost Gillis, president of the Orrington Historical Society. “The owners were fined on a per-animal basis times the number of days that the poundkeeper had to care for them.”
Farm animals still manage to get loose today — just this spring, some cows escaped from an Old Town farm. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, it was such a problem that one of the reasons many towns chose to incorporate was to build pounds and hire pound keepers to keep the marauders under control. Roaming cattle could trample crops, damage property and even cause injury to people trying to get them into line.
According to pound records, which are still held by the Orrington Historical Society, in the mid-19th century, E. L. Bowden, the poundkeeper — akin to today’s animal control officers — charged $10.80 for 15 sheep for five days. If the poundkeeper could not identify the animal, he would advertise the animals and fines in local papers or on posters.
Before the stone pound that stands today was built in 1843 — constructed by Edward Pomeroy of Brewer at a cost of $111 — a wooden pound stood on the same site, built in 1807. The wooden pounds weren’t particularly secure, however.
“It was easy for a farmer to break out animals to take home his critters without paying the fine,” Gillis said. “The stone pound was of course much stronger with an iron gate and lock, and the gate is still there today.”
Animal pounds, also called livestock circles, are actually fairly common across Maine. In addition to storing wayward animals, they were also used as a place to buy and sell livestock in a public setting.
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Its close proximity to busy Route 15 means that the Orrington Pound has been hit by vehicles a number of times over the years, including one particularly damaging strike by a minivan in 2006.
In addition to the one in Orrington, there are animal pounds in a number of towns across Maine, including Waldoboro, Pownal and Sedgwick, all in various states of preservation.
By the late 19th century, as Maine’s economy began to shift away from agriculture, town pounds were largely left to fall into disrepair. Orrington’s is particularly well preserved, thanks to a local effort in 1988 by the Orrington Historical Society and Penobscot Energy Recovery Company — which is just a few hundred feet away on Route 15 — to restore it.