Farming was first

This fertile wilderness valley of the Sandy River was originally known as Shadagee, derived from the Indian name Chatauke, meaning "Great Place". The first settler to come was Perkins Allen, a sea captain from Martha's Vineyard, who in 1790 settled on the property now known as Whip-Poor-Will Farm. This farm was sold to Seth Greely, who built the first frame house on it and held the first church service and school in his barn.

Soon after 1790 several other families journeyed into this wilderness, coming from southern Massachusetts and New Hampshire towns. These first names recorded in old records included Greeleys, Churches, Davenports, Whitneys, Tufts, Howards, Thompsons, Hoyts, Pratts, Wilburs and others. By 1805 there were 21 families in a widely scattered area on both sides of the Sandy River.

Farming was the principle occupation of the first inhabitants of this region, and the life was extremely hard. Clearing the primeval woods, erecting cabins for shelter, and persuading the land to yield enough annually to sustain the family through the winter was indeed rugged work. The most successful settlers were those who brought plenty of help along, such as Micah Whitney, who arrived in Phillips in 1810 with a family of twelve.

Clearing the land for farming could yield a valuable source of income from farmers who gathered the ashes of their burned woods. They would leach the ashes and boil down the leach to create a liquid called pot-ash. This pot-ash could be further boiled down to create pearl-ash which was worth even more. Biscuits made with pearl-ash as leavening were said to be tops.

Settlers raised wheat and other small grains. So successful was this early grain production that Western Maine began to be called the bread-bowl of the nation.

In 1811 with 50 families living here, a petition was signed by 37 men and sent to the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, requesting that the Plantation north of the Township of Avon be granted the right to become a township in order that roads and schools might be built and a future for the area determined. A request that the town be called Troy or Gerry was not granted but instead it was designated "Phillips" after William Phillips, a proprietor of this section of the Jacob Abbot Grant. The first town meeting was held March 14, 1812. The first board of selectmen was elected; they were Jacob Whitney, Benjamin Tufts and Isaac Davenport. These surnames are still common in the area today.

Industry followed

We think of industry today as something that brings money into town, but the first industries of Phillips were set up purely in the interest of serving settlers whose farms were in the immediate neighborhood. The first mill was a combination saw and gristmill built in 1800, at the lower falls of the Sandy River, by Francis Tufts of Farmington. Other mills including many saw mills, a grist mill, furniture factories, potash mill, a clover mill and a lime kiln were in operation. Stores were opened at both ends of town.

In 1808 Benjamin Wilbur built the first bridge across Sandy River near the Tufts Mill. Before that all lumber and grain for the mill, as well as passengers, crossed the river by raft.

The first real industry of Phillips, in the modern sense, was the clapboard and shingle business. With plenty of pine in the township, and comparatively simple sawing equipment required, Phillips exported its product to Farmington, 20 miles away, or, getting even better prices, to the port of Hallowell 65 miles away. Freighting this material, like all other bulk products, was done by ox teams on snow.

Another industry took advantage of the fact that many farmers in the area were raising sheep and had wool to sell. The Phillips Woolen Mill was founded by John Mayall, the nephew of the Samuel Mayall who opened the first woolen mill in America in the 1790s in the town of Gray, Maine. The Phillips Woolen Mill operated with slight interruptions for over a century and developed a national reputation for custom work. Though only the foundation of the mill remains, the swimming hole on the Sandy River right near the bridge on the Salem Road is still referred to as the Woolen Mill.

Another reminder of a more bustling time in Phillips history is the Diamond Match building, or what's left of it. The huge cement structure resembles an ancient ruin with its roof open to the air and foliage growing through the windows. Interestingly, no matches were ever made at this building, but over the years many spools, toothpicks and clothespins emerged from those walls, at its height in 1930, employing 350 people.

Some other industries which have contributed to the life of Phillips over many years are the Austin Spool Mill, active at the turn of the century; the International Manufacturing Company; the Cornwall Industries; McLain's Novelty Mill; Harry Bell's Skewer Mill; many lumber mills too numerous to list; and J.L. Coombs Company, a modern factory where moccasins and other footwear were made and sold.


Along came the railroad

In 1879 the Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Company was organized. The first train came into Phillips in November, 1879. By 1891 the two-foot wide track was completed along the steep shores of the Sandy to Rangeley. For more than 50 years, until its sale in 1935, the business and commerce of the town were influenced by the little Two-Footer.

This railroad took advantage of the fact that the Sandy River had never been developed for log driving, and there still remained in the area virgin stands of spruce and some pine. Thousands of cords of lumber were hauled from the area by its cars and the beauty of one of the nation's finest vacation areas opened to many visitors. The Sandy River and Rangeley Lakes Railroad Company became the largest, best equipped and best managed narrow gauge railroad in the nation.

The depot for the railroad still stands and is kept in good repair by the American Legion, who uses it every week for cribbage and bingo.

The Railroad Museum in Phillips boasts a locomotive and several restored narrow gauge rail cars, and offers train rides along the track to the round house through the spring, summer and fall. Railroad afficionados come from miles around to see this unique set up. Find out more about the Sandy River and Rangely Lakes Railroad at its official website.

Notable places

Follow the old railroad bed and it takes you to the Salmon Hole, named for a time when there were no dams down river on the Sandy and saltwater fish ran every year. One of the most exciting spring events was the spearing of these fish by lantern light. People in good graces with the landowners still enjoy swimming at this sandy spot.

The Big Rock, otherwise known as Daggett Rock, was and still is a tourist attraction. It is a granite boulder measuring 50 to 60 feet in diameter, with its top 30 feet above the level of a nearby hillside. Each year, geology students from the University of Maine at Farmington trek up to inspect this unusual glacial deposit.

Churches were built with every pew occupied on Sunday morning. The old brick Methodist Church in 1835 was later torn down; the Union Meeting House, now the Congregational Church, also erected in 1835, served three denominations -- Congregationalists, Universalists and Baptists; with the present United Methodist Church being built in 1867. The Baptists had been active in town since 1794 and the Congregationalists since 1822, meeting in homes before the erection of the Union Meeting House. Currently the Methodists and the Congregationalists have joined forces to become a Shared Ministry. They attend the Congo church in the warm seasons and the Methodist church in cooler weather as it is easier to heat.

 


Water, fire, ice

The Sandy River with its promise of water power from both upper and lower falls was one of the prime factors in the selection of sites for early homes. It was soon learned that this usually quiet stream can, on occasion, become a destructive force. Records show that at least ten freshets from the early 1800's, including the Run Away Pond Catastrophe of 1847 which carried away the then thriving Bragg Corner settlement, to the historic flood of 1869 which washed away mills, bridges and homes.

Another enemy of the town has been crippling fires. Five times, large portions of both villages have been devastated by major fires. The most recent, and perhaps the most significant fire was in 1971, when the Beal Block burned. The Beal Block was a wooden structure 120 feet long, 65 feet wide and 3 stories high. The building dominated the business district and at one time housed up to ten businesses including two banks, telephone exchange and town office. It is understood that by 1971 the Beal Block was the only survivor among structures of this type built a century earlier.

Another tragic event in local history was the "The year without a summer." A significant number of people from Phillips emigrated to Ohio and other mid-western states in 1818, following three years of poor crops because of extreme cold.

After each tragedy people of the town, with grim determination, pulled together to rebuild. Perhaps because of this history, people of Phillips have a strong will to survive and will readily help others in their time of need.

Now

More than 200 years have passed since Captain Allen made the first house in the wilderness of the Sandy River Valley. There are fewer people here than there were when Phillips reached its peak population of 1,873 in 1870. The 900 or so of us who remain live in some of those same homes, made comfortable with heat and light at the pressing of a button. Our good roads, pure water, modern schools, and countless other advantages have replaced the old ways of other days. Let us never be guilty of forgetting these sturdy ancestors or of failing to appreciate the heritage, which is ours because of them.

 
 
   
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