In the 1920s, unmarried sisters Mary and Almira Payne reportedly were the last residents of Eliot’s Punkintown, a small community of 10 or so families who once lived near the outlet of York Pond. One town history relates Mary had no legs below her knees and travelled by walking “like a toad.”
Today, the remnants of Punkintown (also spelled as Punkin Town) lie deep within 500 acres of conserved forest land between Route 236 in Eliot and Route 91 in York. Punkintown Road, now a trail, still connects these two routes. Exploring this trail and others that lace through these woods, I wonder how often Mary walked on Punkintown Road to York or South Berwick. She never married, but had five children. Did she have a common-law marriage? What became of her children? And what happened to the home where she lived? Mary died in 1927 and Almira in 1936. One account reports that both are buried in the woods near the site of their home.
On my adventures in Punkintown, I have not found that site, or other cellar holes and foundations that once supported homes, but the woods are full of historical clues, like small quarry ponds, cemeteries, and old stone walls.
Punkintown wasn’t truly a town, but might have been a world unto itself, especially once snow piled up on the narrow road. Today, hikers and mountain bikers can get a feel for that isolation when exploring the trails that loop around this forest full of wonders like witch hazel and sassafras trees, and views of Bartlett Mills and York Ponds.
One history of Eliot suggests that the area was settled by Major Charles Frost, who set up a grist mill in the York Pond area in the 1770s. Today, the outlet from York Pond meanders down a channel reinforced with stone walls that look like someone built them 200 years ago, or yesterday. The grist mill may have the reason a few families settled here in the early 1800s.
But was Punkintown as isolated and hardscrabble as these deep woods suggest today? Near the shore of Bartlett Mills Pond, the Plaisted cemetery includes a family monument, a sign that the family was fairly well off, at least by 19th century rural Maine standards.
Also, a photo of the Plaisted family house, labeled as built before 1800, looks sizable and quite respectable. This house reportedly burned down in 1916, but thus far, I have not located a foundation cellar hole (it’s possible that it was filled in, or swallowed up by the newer homes on the private land beyond the York Pond outlet stream).
The Plaisted family settled in southern York County in the 17th century. Roger Plaisted, a likely ancestor to Ebenezer, was killed by Indians in South Berwick in October of 1675, along with his son, Roger. So Ebenezer was likely well-established in the area, with many relatives and community ties.
No one knows for sure how the community came by the name, Punkintown. Some say it was because the people here raised and sold lots of pumpkins.
People lived in Punkintown from the early 1800s until Mary and Almira passed away, with one history suggested that the community died out after a tuberculosis epidemic in the 1920s. However, I question that assertion, since tuberculosis was as common as mud before antibiotics and didn’t “wipe out” towns in a year or two, as infected people tended to succumb slowly, over many years). Edward Vetter’s account tells us that locals recall that an eccentric woman named Emma Payne who may have lived in Punkintown as late as the 1960s. Emma reportedly came to town occasionally to sell vegetables, some of which may have been pilfered from other gardens or farms along the route.
The trail to Punkintown begins on Punkintown Road, by the Brixham Dance Works on Route 236 (across from Marshwood High School). Visitors should park at the top of the hill, off to the right in a small space that holds two or three cars. Here there is a confusing three-way intersection. Walkers or mountain bikers should turn head to the right and up a small hill.
After ascending the first part of the hill, you will reach an intersection. Here, the old Punkintown Road — and the most direct route to the York Pond area — continues straight up the hill.
After climbing up to and then along a ridge, the trail descends gently towards the headwaters of York Pond, where an outlet flows towards Bartlett Mill Pond.
Exploring further, a side trail on the north side of the road leads to the shore of beautiful York Pond, a hidden gem in the forest. Behind the pond, the glacial drumlin, Swazey’s Hill, rises above the pond. You can circle the hill on a flat trail, or climb up and over it on a trail that eventually lands back on Punkintown Road, where you would turn right to head back. At one intersection, a small white arrow directs you to stay right. Pretty easy.
But there’s so much more to explore. To find the Plaisted cemetery, you take another trail on the south side of Punkintown Road. The trail intersects the road in two places (see map above). If you are facing the York Pond outlet stream (looking toward the private land), the trail is to your right. After about 50 yards of walking, you will find the cemetery and Bartlett Mill Pond. If you continue along the woods trail that runs near the pond shore, it will wind back to Punkintown Road, which is basically the spine for these trails and others in the forest.
This beautiful swath of forest features many other trails to explore on foot or mountain bike, all of them suitable for what I call intermediate middle-aged lady mountain biking (woods roads, some single track, and some mud, with a few logs that I walk my bike over).
I’ve lived in the Seacoast region for over 20 years and until this fall, when I first visited Punkintown on a Great Works Land Trust walk, I didn’t even know that this patch of protected land existed. On my explorations since then, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ll definitely come back again for more adventures in Punkintown.
Sources and resources
I welcome any corrections or additions to this piece.
The Great Works Land Trust has been working with other entities for 20 years to conserve the land in this area. Today, this 500-acre forest includes parcels owned by conserved by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the Nature Conservancy, and the Town of Eliot.
Much of the information about Punkintown comes from Edward Vetter’s A Pictorial Tour of Eliot: Historical Markers, Plaques and Landmarks in Eliot, Maine, edited by Esther Morrow. Vetter’s account is based the memories of Frank Parsons, who relayed his memories of Punkintown in 1987, when he was 87.
Margaret A. Elliot’s Eliot, published in 2005 for the Eliot Historical Society, also includes some information on Punkintown.