It’s 10:00 PM; do you know where your cows are?
This might seem like a silly question, but in colonial America, stray animals were a serious problem. Individual farms were close together, dictated by the need for security. Fences were rare because they used valuable resources and valuable time to build. If crops were trampled and destroyed by cow, sheep or horse hooves, it could mean near-starvation for the coming winter. It was a serious offense to let your animals wander at will and destroy your neighbor’s crops
To control this truancy, strict rules were promulgated and stone enclosures called cattle pounds, were built. Specifications were drawn up and were recorded in town minutes. The following quote from The Town of Pownal records specifying the size and materials indicates how important the pound was to the town “…to build said Pound thirty-six feet square in size. Voted the wall of said Pound to be four feet thick at the bottom and eighteen inches at the top and six feet in height with a cap of timber nine inches square on the top of said wall with a good gate.” The records also show that the town voted fifty dollars to build the pound and chose Thomas Cotton as the first Poundkeeper.
Other towns that have pounds show similar specific instructions for their construction. They came in all shapes: square, oblong, round. Fines were established and owners had to pay to retrieve their animals; the Poundkeeper had to be a tough enforcer. Some of Pownal’s fines in the year 1835 were: “For each horse, 25¢ for every 24 hours. For each cow, 13¢ for every 24 hours.” Cold, hard cash; the Poundkeeper was not a popular man!
One of the earliest pounds in Maine was the one in Harpswell, built in 1793. Two walls had to be reconstructed and today the pound stands as a prime example of this forgotten and overlooked part of our history.
The town of Turner had a Poundkeeper as early as 1788 and an early pound in 1795. In 1816, the town authorized a new pound which was built at the intersection of the General Turner Road and the “Kennebec Trail.” This pound has been restored and can be seen today. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.
An interesting sidelight of these “livestock lockups” was the practice of notching cattle’s ears for identification. The town of Pownal called these “creature marks” and maintained a “Book of Creature Marks.” All owners of cattle were required to mark their animals with the mark assigned to them by the Poundkeeper. He could then identify the owners of the impounded animals and levy the appropriate fine!
Since I discovered the cattle pound in Pownal, I have been fascinated by them. I think this is because, compared to Europe, there are so few truly old structures in America. We have colonial houses dating from the 17th and 18th centuries, but cattle pounds are unique in structure and purpose. They originated in Europe and the idea was brought to the New World by the early settlers. In 1821, the Maine state legislature mandated that each town erect a pound to control wandering animals.
For an interesting excursion to see something new (that you may have seen before, but not realized its significance,) take a drive to one of the pounds near you. There are about two dozen identifiable pounds left in Maine. Some of the locations of pounds that can be visited are: Acton, Bethel, Orrington, Jefferson, Deer Isle, Waldoboro, Vienna, Porter, Pittsfield, Lebanon. When you find one, take a few minutes to picture it in its heyday (this could be a pun!) when cattle were lowing and the poundkeeper was berating the scofflaw farmer while exacting the fine. Not very different from scofflaw misdemeanors of today!
As always, we end our excursion with a meal. This time we chose Nezinscot Farm, an organic farm and café located at 284 Turner Center Road in Turner, about 10/15 minutes from the pound. Everything they serve is made or grown right there on the farm. The café serves brunch, lunch and tea. The farm raises cows, hogs, goats, sheep, chickens and sells and serves the meat and poultry products. They make their own cheese and bake bread and tempting bakery items. Samples of cheese, sausage, jams and jellies and baked goods are plentiful. You may come hungry, but there’s no excuse to leave that way!
There is an apothecary selling soaps, personal care items, herb based teas, lotions, bath salts. Herbal consultations and courses are offered. The second floor has an extensive yarn shop (made from their own sheep, llamas and alpacas,) spinning wheels and accessories.
A perfect excursion for a summer day would be a trip to view the pound in Turner and then move on to the Nezinscot Farm to enjoy an organic lunch and maybe get a head start on Christmas shopping!
Location of pounds pictured here in order of their appearance:
1) East Eliot – Between mail boxes 222 & 224, Goodwin Road
2) Pownal – Rt 9, Bradbury Mtn Road, just beyond entrance to Bradbury Mtn Park
3) Harpswell – Rt 123, Harpswell Center
4) Turner – Intersection of General Turner Road and Kennebec Trail
5) Acton – East side of Milton Mills Rd, South Acton