Andy O’Brien

On the west bank of the Medomak River in Waldoboro, there’s an old German cemetery and a 250-year old Lutheran Church known as the Old German Meeting House. The church was erected in 1772 by German colonists who had been lured to settle the area – then known as Broad Bay – by General Samuel Waldo of Boston, a wealthy English merchant capitalist.  In 1729, Waldo had acquired controlling interest in 36 square miles of land from the midcoast into central Maine. Between 1740 and 1742, Waldo  recruited 40 families from Germany to create a little farming colony at Broad Bay. In his German-language advertisements, he promised to provide the settlement with several years of food, a church minister, and 100 acres of land by the sea. But what awaited the colonists when they arrived was not the populous city they were promised. Instead, they found dense forests, poor, rocky soil, and war, according to historian Cyrus Eaton in his book Annals of Town of Warren: 

Andy O’Brien is a writer, labor activist, and lifelong Mainer. He lives in Rockland.

These settlers were unable to speak a word of the English language, and consequently could hold
little intercourse and gain but little aid from their English neighbors. They were unacquainted
with the art of fishing; had been unaccustomed to seeing lands enclosed by fences; and were
inexperienced in the clearing up of new lands. Their progress in agriculture was slow; their
crops were injured by wild beasts and cattle that strayed from the neighboring settlements; and
they suffered incredible and almost insurmountable hardships. 
The local Indigenous people did not authorize the colonization of their homeland, and in 1746,
local tribes, allied with the French colony of New France, attacked Broad Bay, burning houses,
killing settlers and carrying away captives. In September 1743, Waldo’s grandson Jonathan
Waldo recruited more German families to Broad Bay – just in time for a long, hard Maine
winter. They built log huts, on lots that were packed close together, only a half-acre wide and a
mile long. It was not an ideal arrangement to create farms. 

The closest European settlements were several miles away and there were no streets, wharves, or
businesses nearby. There was also no protection from raids. The closest grist mills to process the
meager grains grown in Broad Bay were several miles away at other settlements. Sometimes the
settlers traded lumber and grain with ships traveling north from Massachusetts, but that didn’t
produce much income. 

As Moravian Missionary George Soelle wrote of the colony in 1767: “Such poverty! Right now
the children have nothing to wear but a shirt, and will not get any more this winter.” 
In his book Ancient Dominions of Maine, Rufus Sewall wrote of one cold winter on the island of
Jeremy Squam (present-day Westport Island), when a German family nearly starved to death
after the father was drafted to fight in a war against the French and the local tribes.  
“It was a season of great scarcity and distress in the war-wasted region, as we have ever seen,”
wrote Sewall. “Soon the deep snows of winter shut out all resources from the store of roots and herbs in the forest, and the hoar frosts had fast looked up the hitherto open clam banks, and
wrapped in ice-bound depths ‘the treasures these hid in the sand for the poor.’ ” 

With only four quarts of cornmeal to last the whole winter, the Rines family began to grow
desperate. “Gaunt famine now pressed at the door,” Sewall wrote, and the children cried in
hunger. On the verge of starvation, they were ultimately saved by the family cat that came
bounding across the frozen bay one day with a frost fish (tomcod) in its mouth. After that, the
family went every day to catch the winter spawning fish from breaks in the ice, until it melted
and broke up in the spring. 

Sewall also described how Maine’s strange and forbidding environment lent itself to fear and
superstition: “Strange sights and sounds assailed… . Fire-flies glowed in the dark woods. Frogs
croaked in every swale, and loons screamed in the twilight. Contending long with hunger and
cold, ‘witches and warlocks’ — every superstition of their fatherland quickened ten-fold amid
their wild New England homes….” 

However, some colonists were not so poor and were able to survive on deer, moose, fish and
later corn, which they sold to buy chickens and cattle for milk, eggs, and leather for shoes. Some
were even able to purchase better land. But some Broad Bay residents learned that Waldo did not
legally own some of this land and had to give up what the landholder had promised them. It’s a
sad, but familiar story, in mid-Maine.