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For better or worse, most U.S. cities today are built around cars — getting them from point A to point B, and parking them once you’re at your destination.
More than a century ago, the same sort of thing was true for a different form of transportation: horses.
All across Maine — where small towns are the norm, rather than large urban areas — the infrastructure reflected how people got around. Up until the 1890s, when streetcars began appearing in cities like Bangor and Portland, if your journey didn’t necessitate long-distance rail transportation, you were hitching up your horse and trotting off, either in the saddle or in a carriage.
Almost nothing remains of the old horse-centric infrastructure in Maine, except for one increasingly rare thing: hitching posts — granite or iron posts in front of houses and businesses, there for visitors to tie up their horse before going inside.
Hitching posts kept your horse in view while you did your business or had a chat, and it served the important purpose of making sure they didn’t run off — a common and sometimes destructive occurrence in those days.
“There were constantly headlines in the paper back then about runaway horses,” said Bangor historian Dick Shaw. “It was big news. People could get trampled. And horses were a big investment for people, like cars today. You certainly didn’t want to lose them.”
By the 1920s, horses were well on their way to becoming obsolete outside of sporting or agricultural purposes, to be replaced by the almighty automobile. Hitching posts simply didn’t serve a purpose anymore.
While many of those old hitching posts have been removed due to either sidewalk widening projects or by homeowners themselves, a number still remain on some of the older streets across Maine. In the Bangor region, there are several on Broadway and Ohio Street, and four on Holyoke Street in Brewer, with many more tucked away in small towns around the state.
You can usually tell if a piece of granite outside a house or building is a hitching post by its shape. If it looks like an obelisk that’s taller than it is wide, it’s probably a hitching post — and if it has an iron ring still attached to it, it definitely is. Very wide granite markers, or ones under a foot tall, were likely there to designate property lines, or merely to serve as decoration, but it’s hard to be 100 percent sure in all cases.
In Portland, there are six hitching posts within the city’s historic downtown, as well as granite blocks set into the street to help people get in and out of carriages. There’s also an old granite watering trough for horses on Federal Street, named for local animal rights activist Stanley Thomas Pullen. If hitching posts were the equivalent of a horse parking lot, watering troughs were like a horse gas station.
Bangor had a granite watering trough in Pickering Square known colloquially as the “punch bowl,” which stood in the square from the 1870s until the 1930s. According to Shaw, the trough was reportedly shipped to Bangor from Boston in the 1860s and fell off the steamship it arrived on, sinking to the bottom of the river. It stayed there until an 1870s dredging project retrieved it, and it was finally installed in the square.
As far as anyone knows, Portland’s trough is the only publicly displayed one left in Maine. Hitching posts are much more common, especially in front of large houses once owned by the wealthy and well-connected. Shaw said that hitching posts served not just a practical purpose, they also signified the status of the homeowner.
“Someone who lived in a big, fancy house would have a rather ornate hitching post outside. It showed that you were notable enough to receive a lot of visitors,” Shaw said.
If they need to be removed in order to make way for streetside improvements, sometimes people will save the old posts and display them elsewhere on their property, or sell them to antique or granite dealers.
For those original ones that remain in towns across the state, however, they are a visible reminder of an era before gasoline and electricity powered personal transportation — when all you needed was hay and water, and maybe an apple or two.