STOCKTON SPRINGS — Now that winter is on its way, the sledding season is about to start. Sledding down a hill in the backyard is fun, but imagine hurtling down Church Street, straight through the village, down School Street and right onto the ice covering the waters of Mill Cove.
That’s how kids did it in the early 20th century, as told by Stockton Springs residents in a new book, “We Never Knew Any Different: Stockton Springs, Stories of the Past Century.”
The book was edited by Donna Gold, an anthropologist by training who, as an oral historian, helps families and towns retell their past.
A Yonkers, N.Y., native, Gold moved to Maine because “I could have everything I wanted in New York, except peace and quiet,” she said. Now a Stockton Springs resident, Gold also has produced histories of Camden and East Blue Hill.
Part of what draws her to oral history, Gold said, is that “it gives respect, recognition and honor to the people who lived here in our communities,” she said. “It’s almost like a geology of life, to understand what came before and to see an area with new lives.”
After reading Gold’s book, one imagines the quiet streets of Stockton Springs coming alive with the sound of horses clopping past and the rumble of Model T Fords hauling wood down Main Street. If you listen closely, you might be able to hear the sound of lumber, paper and potatoes being loaded at the Cape Docks.
In “We Never Knew Any Different,” Stockton Springs residents recall the sights and sounds of their childhood. They tell stories of walking to school in snowshoes, because the roads were not plowed. They said most Stockton Springs homes had at least one cow, at a time when the town had 1,100 residents, four grocery stores, two newspapers, two dry goods stores, a hat-maker, a dressmaker, a blacksmith and a roller-skating rink all to itself.
“Back in the ’40s, Stockton was the entertainment center,” said Jack McLaughlin, who was born in 1928 and whose father started the first scheduled bus line in the state of Maine.
“Kids would come from Belfast, Searsport, Winterport, Frankfort, Prospect, Sandy Point, Bucksport,” said McLaughlin, who met his future wife at the town roller rink, “Because that’s the only one there was around here.”
In many ways, people could do more with less back then.
“There wasn’t a whole lot to do, but we had fun,” said Marion Fisher, who was born in 1929 and would ice skate right off the road in the winter.
“We’d roam through fields, go down the railroad tracks picking blueberries or raspberries or blackberries,” Fisher continued. “We were usually within shouting distance so Mom could holler at us.”
Still, it was a hard time to grow up. Some children died young, and 11 people in town died from the 1918 influenza epidemic. Many people still had to use an outhouse to go to the bathroom (even in the dead of winter) and many didn’t have refrigerators.
In the days before the internet, Stockton Springs also felt disconnected from the rest of the world, especially if you wanted to get an education.
“We had a library at school and we had one at church,” Fisher said. “I think my sister Shirley and I read every book in that library.”
“There was college material there, but it was the Depression and you didn’t do it,” said Mary Gurney, about her experience at the Stockton School, which taught grades one through 12. “I wanted to go [to college] but there was no money. They didn’t have all these scholarships they’ve got now.”
Despite their hardships, Gold said she noticed a glint in the eyes of the aged storytellers as they remembered their childhoods.
“When they talked about their childhood or early experiences, I saw their faces change and they become their 9-year-old or 12-year-old or 16-year-old self again,” she said.
The book is organized around the themes of everyday life: school, food, health, fashion, transportation, work, homes, people and more. Each theme is made up of quotes from Gold’s interviews.
On almost every page, there are pictures from a familiar place in a different time: when Stockton Springs hosted the largest potato storage plant in the world and when people could take horses across the Penobscot River when it froze in the winter.
The pictures and stories, Gold said, help to “understand the layers of life that exist wherever we are, where we walk around, where we live.”
Many of the people featured in the book have passed away since their interviews, most of which were conducted in the early 2000s. But every once in awhile, their way of life comes back to Maine.
“When we go through a big power outage it reminds us how people lived before,” Gold said.
“We Never Knew Any Different” is sold at Compass Rose in Castine, BookStacks in Bucksport, and at the Center for Maine Crafts, at the highway rest stop in Gardiner.