In the fall of 2014, archaeologist Norm Buttrick supervised an educational survey at the historic site of the Francis O.J. Smith Estate in the heart of Baxter Woods. The project was sponsored by the DCNA and made possible by the award of Major Grant from the Maine Humanities Council.
Working with students from McAuley High School, which is itself located on the
former Smith Estate, Norm chose several pit sites to explore based on the scant knowledge we have about the estate.
“Forest Home” was the beloved estate of Maine Congressman, newspaper editor, and entrepreneur, Francis Ormand Jonathan Smith. It was situated near Steven’s Plain in the town of Deering, then a part of the city of Westbrook.
In 1835, Smith commissioned noted architect Asher Benjamin to build what would become a grand residence, the scene of much “high living and lavish expenditure” as local newspaper clippings of the day described it.
According to local historian and long-time Portland Room librarian, Tom Gaffney, “Forest Home” was a “curious affair for Maine. Constructed of brick covered with mastique and trimmed with granite, the stricture was described as “all parlor and library” (see Gaffney’s masterful dissertation Maine’s Mr. Smith: A Study of the Career of Francis O.J. Smith Politician and Entrepreneur for the full description of the estate).
In fact, the library was a second and separate building, connected to the main house by a covered walkway. At its time, with over 6, 000 items in its holdings, it was the largest private collection in the state of Maine. Unfortunately, Mr. Smith’s second wife, Ellen, thought so little of Smith and his legacy that she used it to house her chickens during her frequent trips to New York.
Smith’s legacy, as it is, remains largely unknown. In politics, he is remembered as a Jacksonian Democrat who supported the Union in the Civil War but not the abolition of slaves. His business dealings with Samuel F. Morse, in the invention of the telegraph, left the partnership in tatters. His prolific and provocative newspaper dealings earned him a host of enemies. His lavish lifestyle and shady banking practices left him penniless, when he died of heart disease at Forest Home in 1876. In 1878, the estate was sold to James Phinney Baxter. Baxter, in turn, sold most of the estate, including the Home for Aged, Indigent Mothers that Smith had intended for posterity, to Bishop Healey of Portland in 1881. In 1909, the home was grandly expanded and became the Motherhouse for the Sister of Mercy. Baxter tore down “Forest Home” and his son, Percival, deeded the remainder of the land to the City for use as a bird sanctuary.
Today, we know that portion as “Baxter Woods”, and there is little evidence of the existence of the grand residence and brilliant, if brash life of the man behind it. Norm Buttrick and his team of students and teachers helped change that. They found over 200 artifacts that help us re-create “Forest Home” in all its splendor and in its everyday life. Here, you’ll find a sample of the things they found.