Children love secrets, and they sometimes hint about them to their playmates. In this way, the fascination of a long-held secret has kept alive a tantalizing moment in the life of a northern Maine pioneer Quaker family. The year was about 1860. The home of the Haines family was almost directly west of Monson Pond, several miles south of Fort Fairfield. Across the pond was Canada.
The children had been sent upstairs to bed, but not all of them had gone to sleep as they had sensed something important was happening. Late at night when their father came home, they heard him quietly report to their mother, "Well, they are safe tonight."
The children revealed their eavesdropping by asking their parents questions, and were firmly instructed never, ever to talk about it. The only detail the children ever disclosed to their playmates was that there was said to be a hiding place somewhere in the church.
Joseph Wingate Haines was the children’s father, and Mary Briggs Haines was their mother. In 1844, the large and growing Haines family had journeyed through near-wilderness all the way from Hallowell, Maine, to build a sawmill and settle on a grant of 1,000 acres of partially cleared land. They had brought with them the necessary machinery for a water-powered sawmill, household goods, farming equipment, and an undocumented (but near-certain) dedication to the cause of antislavery—a movement that was sweeping New England in the years before the Civil War.
The Haineses were the first of a number of Quaker families who settled in the area in the next decades with names such as Sampson, Partridge, Estes, Nichols, Varney, and Hilton. A plain building for Quaker meetings was built in 1859 on level ground near a gentle hilltop.
Today, that hilltop is still crowned by 12 acres of very large "climax forest": maple trees interspersed among large boulders dropped by melting glacial ice thousands of years before. Hence the name of the meetinghouse: Maple Grove Friends Church, Vasselboro Quarter, New England Yearly Meeting.
Extensive improvements were made 45 years later, and today this small Friends church stands on its original rock foundation, lovingly restored to its 1906 condition. Those improvements of 1906 had included a steeple, weather vane, tin ceilings and wainscoting all around, pews facing a platform, a piano, and a stained-glass window (from Boston) honoring William Penn Varney, a much-respected preacher, and his wife.
A preacher? Yes, this was a programmed meeting. And the late-20th-century restoration revealed a space below the platform (which had been covered with layers of old rugs and floorboards made from the window’s packing crate), a space large enough for people to lie down—perhaps a hiding place! According to a Haines descendant, the once-existing horse shed might also have been used as a hiding place for escaping slaves.
During the 20th century, church membership dwindled as family farming gave way to industrial-scale agriculture. The building was sold to an Orthodox Presbyterian minister around the year 1965, and two decades later he donated it to the Fort Fairfield Heritage Historical Society.
Inspired by local resident Ruth Reed Mraz, meticulous restoration of the Friends church was carried out with the help of her husband, Arthur, and other dedicated volunteers. Ruth had attended the Quaker Oak Grove-Coburn School in Maine as a child, and had always had a tenderness for Friends. She was very pleased to learn shortly before her death in early 2008 that she actually had Quaker ancestry. Thanks to her, the Friends church is now listed as a National Historic Site of Underground Railroad importance.
In 2000, for the dedication of the newly restored building, Quakers from Maine and Canada were invited, along with the many local supporters of the project. Among the many Friends present were John and Doris Calder of Long Reach, New Brunswick. John is a former Clerk of Canadian Yearly Meeting, and he and Doris donated a British 1787 abolitionist "token" to the new cultural site.
At the dedication service, the well-researched local contribution to the Underground Railroad was discussed, there was a period of silent worship, and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" was sung. After much effort, Arthur Mraz was able to obtain a corresponding U.S. abolitionist "token" dated 1838. Today both of these medallions, originally minted to be sold as fundraisers for the abolitionist cause, are on display in the restored Friends Church in Maple Grove.
Of course, the parental secrecy of Joseph and Mary Haines that night so long ago had to do with the Underground Railroad. Ruth Mraz’s mother had heard the story as a child when playing with descendants of the Haines family and passed the story along to Ruth.
There is some evidence of Underground Railroad (URR) activities at over 100 sites in Maine. Sometimes fugitives would arrive in Bangor/Brewer by ship, and proceed from there by various canoe and overland routes to safety in Canada.
My first inkling of surreptitious participation in URR activities by residents of Aroostook County was sparked by a childhood memory shared by Leona Lake Bell, a resident of Houlton, Maine, where my wife, Marilyn, and I have lived for 26 years. One day when I asked some folks at a nursing home about any farm memories or URR stories, she sat up, suddenly alert, and told of a moment from her childhood when the grown-ups towering over her were talking about local people who had helped fugitive slaves through their small town and on to the north and east toward Canada. She was living at the time in the town of Oakfield, 15 miles west of Houlton and 70 miles southwest of Maple Grove.
That is all she remembered, but, as she said, "I told myself, this is important and I will remember it." Some 75 years later, she related her memory to me and here it is now, in its entirety. I have since been told by others that three houses were used for URR purposes in Oakfield.
Information of any sort about the URR was rarely, if ever, written down by the contemporary participants, for good reason. For those who lived in slave states, it was illegal to aid escaping slaves, and after the highly publicized Fugitive Slave Laws were passed by Congress in 1850, it was illegal to give any aid to fugitive slaves anywhere in the United States. In reaction to these federal laws, Maine and many other states soon passed "freedom laws" that put the state and county law enforcement authorities at cross-purposes with the federal authorities.
On March 17, 1855, the Maine Legislature passed "An Act Further to Protect Personal Liberty." It prohibited law enforcement authorities from "taking cognizance of or granting a certificate to anyone who claims someone is a fugitive slave," naming a $1,000 fine or a year in jail for breaking this law. The statute ends: "Nothing in this act shall be construed to hinder or obstruct . . . any officer of the United States from executing or enforcing [the Fugitive Slave Laws]."
A federal commission was established to enforce the federal law, but no prosecutions were brought forward in Maine. Nevertheless, I have heard the story of a Houlton, Maine, Irishman who was suspected of aiding a fugitive and of running away from the "slave-catcher." He fled across the border into Canada, which is a matter of a few steps on dry land in this part of Maine, and promptly made an insulting gesture at the pursuing gentleman.
In this difficult situation, while antislavery associations were openly organizing and flourishing in Maine, the URR operated quietly, frequently carried on by citizens like the Haines family who were of exemplary character and repute.
The Quakers who lived in central Maine, around Augusta, China Lake, Hallowell, and Vassleboro, had been encouraged to settle there in the past partly because Massachusetts needed nonviolent settlers in that then-frontier area. A respected civic leader, Jonah Dunn, moved from Cornish, Maine, to Houlton in 1826. "Squire Dunn," as he was called, had a son, Charles, who won the contract to transport the U.S. mail north from Houlton beginning in 1844. A farmer himself in Presque Isle, west of Maple Grove, Charles could well have alerted Friends to the superb "good ground" there.
Did the Haines family and other Quakers, by removing themselves from their settled farms and venturing into the wilderness to the northeast, purposefully establish an "end run" around the slave catchers in the more settled areas along the Canadian border? We cannot prove it, but we believe it was so.
About the year 1905, when the real railroad reached as far north as Fort Fairfield, it was built right across the Haines family property with a siding and station located there. (The station no longer exists, but a cast iron railroad sign still standing by the tracks faintly reads, "Maple Grove.") One day, early in the 20th century, an African American man from the south got off the train and came to the Haines home. He introduced himself as David Hooper and said, in effect, "I understand you people helped my people before the Civil War, and now may I help you? Do you need a gardener?"
David Hooper lived many decades in a small building nearby that he called his "shanty," and his flowers were said to be something to behold. He always called Miss Haines "Missy." As the years passed, he became arthritic, and one day his family came and took him back south on the train.
Joseph Wingate Haines and others of his family are buried in the small Haines family cemetery, which is located in the valley below the maple grove. A member of the Haines family lives nearby and tends the cemetery. Thanks to the Fort Fairfield Frontier Heritage Historical Society, and particularly to Ruth and Arthur Mraz, Maple Grove Friends Church has been restored and preserved for the future. And its original builders’ humanitarian accomplishments live on as well in the lives of those whom they so unselfishly aided.