When writer Sarah Orne Jewett stopped by the Littlefield farmhouse in June, 1889, she found Daniel Littlefield, then 68, sitting in his deceased wife’s rocking chair, looking out the window at the same lane on which we walked on a recent Sunday in April.
Littlefield, Jewett observed, had a “large frame…built for hard work, for lifting great weights and pushing his plough through new-cleared land.”
But now, this Civil War veteran, crippled by war wounds, aging, and a lifetime of “undiverted toil,” could no longer do the heavy lifting of farming. Like many in 19th century South Berwick, Daniel and his wife Mercy had lived a hard-scrabble life on their hilly and rock-filled land. They had endured the deaths of infant Izaro, three-year old Eunice, and 22-year-old Henrietta. Although son Orris stayed on, and daughter Phebe married locally, Daniel and Mercy witnessed the departure of many young people who abandoned family farms and left Maine for better prospects after the Civil War.
But despite the hard living, every farmhouse on what Jewett called the “White Rose Road” had a white rose bush planted near the door, including that of Littlefields — a small burst of daily joy from June through fall.
Daniel built his farmhouse around 1860 on the foundation of a home built in the 1800s. In 1889 — and probably long before that — few people passed by the lonely farmhouse, located just over a half-mile off Thurrell Road (Jewett’s “White Rose Road”).
Although we found no sign of the white rose bush, we felt a similar sense of isolation when we explored the Orris Falls Conservation Area. We saw other walkers, but not many, considering that this April afternoon offered ideal circumstances for exploring these trails, with all the sights and contours of the land fully revealed.
When I set out for this hike, I didn’t know about Sarah Orne Jewett’s sketch, “The White Rose Road,” which recounts an afternoon ride through this neighborhood. After reading it, I was struck by how Jewett’s sketch of an agrarian neighborhood in decline captured the sense I felt of traveling in a lost New England as we wandered through the forest now grown up from the old farm fields.
We began at the Thurrell Road trailhead on the same woods road that Daniel Littlefield and his family rode or walked en route to town, school, or to the closest neighboring house. About a half-mile in, we stopped at the Littlefield family cemetery, where Daniel and Mercy are buried along with at least two of their children.
The Littlefield house, now a cellar hole, is just past the cemetery. Daniel and Mercy probably sometimes went for days without speaking to a neighbor, especially during stormy days or intense cold.
Continuing on, the trail crosses a wooden footbridge before turning right to Orris Falls, where water was tumbling in a small fall that probably froths large after a heavy rain. Here, the trail loops back towards Thurrell Road; hikers who wish to continue on to Balancing Rock should backtrack towards the main woods road.
Continuing on the main trail, we ascended Spring Hill and discovered the Tatnic Ledges, with a pre-foliage view of Mount Agamenticus. We were beginning to wonder if we had missed the turn-off to Balancing Rock when we came upon a small sign pointing the way.
After our visit to Balancing Rock, we backtracked to the junction at the Littlefield cellar hole and hiked over to the Big Bump. Somehow we missed LaChance Point, so that viewpoint will have to wait for next time.
Fifteen years ago (circa 2000), this property was not accessible to the public and was ripe for development. Thanks to the work of many at the Great Works Regional Trust, Orris Falls Conservation Area was preserved through land purchases and conservation easements over private lands — an effort that involved years of negotiations regarding multiple parcels of land and various financing arrangements .
It’s hard to imagine that this patch of forest might have become another southern Maine subdivision. I know that people need places to live, but I’m glad that Great Works managed to save this special place so that we can wander here today.
Sources and Resources
The full text of Sarah Orne Jewett’s sketch, “The White Rose Road,” first published in The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1889, and again in her book, Strangers and Wayfarers (1890).
Scholar Nancy Meyer Wetzel links Jewett’s sketch to the historical people and events in her 2003 article, “The White Rose Road: Sarah Orne Jewett’s Journey to Orris Falls.“
Find-a-Grave has photos and more details about the Littlefield Family cemetery.