Tales from some of the Christmas place names in Maine
By Paul Mills
With thousands of different names for communities, mountains, hills, lakes and streams in our state it’s surprising how few are associated with America’s premiere holiday. This columnist’s own survey has so far turned up less than a dozen such locations. Among them: three places named Christmas Cove, two Jersusalems, and a Santa Claus Lake.
It’s a fitting occasion to take a glimpse at some of them.
Maine’s Christmas Coves are on Monhegan Island, South Bristol and Southport. Legend has it that Monhegan’s derives its name from 1614 when British Explorer John Smith supposedly spent Christmas Day there; South Bristol’s from the perhaps apocryphal notion that Norsemen spent Christmas there about 1014. Origin of Southport’s much smaller Christmas Cove isn’t really known, though it is sometimes called “Little” Christmas Cove to set it apart from South Bristol’s, which is only a few miles away.
The South Bristol Christmas Cove was the location for benevolent episodes that made possible the ascent of a leading Maine based statesmen. For it was here that future U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie was afforded the means by which he could finish the last two years of his law school education.
With only a week to go before resumption of classes for his second year at the prestigious, but pricey Cornell Law School, Muskie in September 1937 was about to throw in the towel on his goal of ever becoming a lawyer. With his father’s means derived from a Rumford tailor shop stretched to the limits and with only meager support from a summertime bellhop job Muskie was nearly $1,000 short of the funds needed to resume his education. His somewhat less than stellar grades in his first year (mostly Cs) had foreclosed him from qualifying from one of the school’s scholarships.
Instead of going back to law school the future Maine governor, senator, presidential contender and secretary of state set his sights on a teaching position at Mars Hill High School, south of Presque Isle.
Just as potato fields of Aroostook County were about to beckon, however, Muskie got wind of Bethel based multi-millionaire philanthropist, William Bingham, II. Bingham’s financial aid programs were geared toward annually helping several dozen higher education students.
Though Bingham resided only about 23 miles from Muskie’s Rumford home, Muskie would have to make his pitch for funding over 90 miles away. This was at South Bristol’s Christmas Cove, where Bingham’s plenipotentiary, the physician George Farnsworth, held forth.
Muskie thus hitched a ride to Farnsworth’s home. It was here that Muskie after several hours with Farnsworth helped demonstrate the kind of character and personality that would one day charm Maine and much of the entire nation. For despite the mediocre grades, Muskie walked away with a loan for $900.
It was an investment, which when coupled with an additional $1,000 Farnsworth advanced on Bingham’s behalf for Muskie’s final school year, beginning in 1938, would keep Muskie on a path that led to high national callings and almost to the White House.
Though the $1,900 in advancements provided Muskie by Bingham were loans, Muskie was never required to repay them. That was due to Bingham’s policy of forgiving such debts to those who went into military service, something Muskie did as a naval officer after Pearl Harbor.
The location for Bingham’s beneficence then was, as Muskie himself once remarked, “aptly named.”
Though this columnist cannot locate a place in Maine named for either Bethlehem or Nazareth there is a quarter mile long pond “Galilee” in the remote wilderness of northern Maine.
We have also had at least two Jerusalems. One of them is a 440-foot “mountain” on Isle au Haut, the tiny Penobscot Bay island that’s home to famed writer Linda Greenlaw.
Another is the historic name for the eastern half of the town that now includes Sugarloaf. This Jerusalem was established as a municipal “plantation,” in 1855. Though it soon gave up its organization as a local government, it continued to be known by the Biblically influenced name until the early 1970s when it re-organized as Carrabassett Valley. The “Valley” town initially comprised only the eastern approaches to Sugarloaf and at that time it was probably best known for its destination restaurant, tavern and overnight lodging establishment, The Red Stallion.
As Larry Warren, the onetime Sugarloaf board president who served on the first Board of Selectmen for the town in 1972 recalled for this columnist recently, the shift from “Jerusalem” to “Carrabassett Valley” was in part due to the long-standing designation of “Carrabassett” as the name of both the river and railroad station that had given the community much of its identity. Warren also hints that an occasion for surrendering the former name might have been due to the somewhat secular nature of its 1970s inhabitants, perhaps known more for attending what Warren referred to as “the altar of Red Stallion” than church services.
Another of the Christmas holiday place names is in Temple, about nine miles west of Farmington. It’s here that in the mid-1960s the 56-acre Staples Pond caught the fancy of its new owner, Robert L. Bull. The aerial image of the pond so resembled the silhouette of a Santa standing with a pack on his pack that Bull wound up re-naming it Santa Claus Lake. Taking the holiday theme a step further, Bull named new building sites around it after Dasher, Dander, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, Blixen and Rudolph. The main lodge was painted the Christmas colors, red and green.
But as related to this columnist a few days ago by Bull’s son, Rob, the naming was not a cosmetic gimmick. Instead, Bull, who died in 2008, aspired to fulfill the spirit of generosity exhibited by the original real life Santa, the 4th century Saint Nicholas. This he did by building a lodge and cabins with a mission as the younger Bull put it, “For families who could not afford a vacation to use and for summer retreats and camps for non-profit organizations.”
Rob and his wife Beth, a minister, annually fulfill this tradition by hosting at the lodge families of ministers and others who might not otherwise afford a vacation. Rob’s sister, Laura, who owns the nearby family homestead hosts retreats for various groups there as well.
Regardless of one’s faith or for that matter one’s belief in Santa, the Bull family’s generosity and other stories about these Maine place names on this, the 197th Christmas since we became a state, are both hopeful and inspirational.
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.