Growing up on the coast of Maine, the romance of the sea, and our amazing maritime history were never far from my thoughts. The old seaport of Wiscasset, at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in the mid-coast region of Maine is a town of many architectural wonders that bear witness to that past, when sailing ships built in the region were tied up at the docks between journeys from our small towns to ports around the world.
|Photograph by Cervan Robinson, Historic American Buildings Survey|
On a side street amongst several larger and grander neighbors, sits this small brick house was built for one Samuel Page in 1837. For the first 109 years of its existence, it was a typical tidy brick house, symmetrical, well proportioned, and plain, the sort of house that was done so well all over New England in the early 19th century. That changed in 1946 when the enchanting porch 19th century entry porch was added by the then owner, Mrs. Cunningham.
|Cervan Robinson, HABS|
At first glance, this porch appears to be classic cast iron, with a grapevine motif---but look again---it is carved wood. It came from the home of Edbury Hatch, the last of a distinguished tradition of men who carved figureheads and ornaments for the hundreds of ships built in the region in the 19th century. Born in Newcastle, a few miles up the coast from Wiscasset, in 1849, Hatch apprenticed in the carving shop of William Southworth, and later worked for Col. Sampson of Bath. By the 1880s, wooden ship building was drawing to a close, and Hatch, a lifelong bachelor, moved for a time to Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he worked as a night watchman. By 1890, he had returned to the family home in Newcastle, where he spent the rest of his life carving fantastical items to ornament the exterior of the house. The Wiscasset porch was from Hatch's front door. Unseen in the photo (and unfortunately no photo is available to me at this moment) are the side panels, described by Jean Lipman as 'a hunting dog stalking unseen prey with a bird, bee and butterfly buzzing overhead' and 'the other a bear foraging for nuts, accompanied by an enormous dragonfly'. The porch was but one of a veritable cornucopia of carved ornament on Hatch's house, including this bas relief of the State of Maine seal.
|From American Folk Art in Wood, Metal and Stone, by Jean Lipman|
The two side porches from the Hatch house, equally fantastical, with serpents and tassels carved in high relief, were purchased by authors Henry Beston and his wife Elisabeth Coatsworth, who took them to 'Chimney Farm', their house in neighboring Nobleboro.
|Another of the porticos from the Hatch house can be seen at Chimney Farm (henrybeston.org)|
The following about Hatch appeared in Time magazine for Dec. 13, 1948, and tantalizes the imagination:
'This is to certify that Edbury Hatch has served a regular apprenticeship of more than four years with me in the carving business, that he is honest, temperate and industrious . . . A lack of business is the only reason that I do not employ him.'
Young Edbury Hatch had just picked the wrong trade. When he was a boy in Newcastle, Me., the town had supported ten busy shipyards and every new vessel needed a carved figurehead. But by 1870, when William Southworth discharged Hatch, business was starting to fall off.
Hatch, armed with his letter of recommendation, stuck with it to the last, then got a job as a night watchman in a hotel. For old times' sake, he whittled while he worked. In the 1890s, he got a notion to carve decorations for his own house and barn. He did them for fun until he died in 1935, lavishing on the job all his training and skill, and using his hundred woodworking tools.
Because his house stayed put and never suffered the hazards of the sea, its ebulliently baroque decorations are among the handful of surviving monuments to maritime woodcarving in the U.S.
According to Art Expert Samuel M. Green (who describes them in the current Magazine of Art), they are also some of the best. A Hatch cannon surmounted by two eagles, a near-life-size horse, and a tree full of carved cats have all disappeared, but a wooden treasure remains. Among the highlights: a gutter spout representing a sea monster and reminiscent of medieval gargoyles (though Hatch never saw any); a side entrance adorned with lion heads, snakes and stars.