Town History

The Waldo County town of Winterport is situated on the west bank of the Penobscot River. Early settlement dates from 1766, and the town called Frankfort, which included what is now Winterport, was incorporated in 1789. In 1860, when Winterport became a separate town, its population was 2,380. In more recent times, the town has witnessed a rapid growth, so that the 1996 figure was approximately 3,500.

The Bacon Tree was a thick Norway pine, at the time said to be the only one in the region. It was a round, compact tree with the limbs growing so near the ground it made it difficult to get under it.  During the war of 1812, the British landed in Frankfort.  Judge Goodwin, a citizen of Frankfort, concealed his silver and supply of hams in the tree’s thick foliage. The measure was successful and the British passed along the road a short distance from the tree without observing its savory fruit. Therefore, the Judge “saved his bacon.”

The Penobscot River has always had a great influence on the well-being of the town. Prior to the coming of the railroad to Bangor in 1855, most freight and travelers came to that city on vessels sailing up the river. In the winter months, before the days of ice breakers, all goods and travelers had to be off-loaded at Frankfort (Winterport) and transported to Bangor and points north by wagons or sleds. Because the river was ice bound beyond this point, this was a true "winter port", making it an important location. Many people earned their living in activities in support of river transportation. Ships were built here. By 1880, 140 sailing vessels had been built in the area, but this industry came to an end with the coming of the iron steamship. There was passenger service via the Boston boats of the Eastern Steamship Co. up until 1935. Today, river traffic consists mostly of oil tankers. In addition to the business and industry related to the river there were a varied number of other enterprises, including lumber mills, farms and orchards, commercial fishing, granite quarrying, factories producing cheese, carriages, barrels, shirts and vests, plus other business activities in support of a growing town. Clearly, before the advent of the automobile, the town was more self-sustaining than it is today.

The Maine lumber boom brought great prosperity to the entire region during the years 1840-1880. Then, as the lumber business declined, so did the economy and the population. In the latter decades of the nineteenth century, many Maine people left the state to go west, where farming looked to be easier and more profitable.

Old maps of this town show many farms existing in the rural area where now stand abandoned cellars and orchards as mute evidence of what was once thriving agricultural activity. The old records, photos, and postcards in the Historical Association museum reveal the tremendous changes that have occurred here.

Where stood livery stables, carriages, harness, and blacksmith shops, there are now only an occasional hitching post and watering trough to remind us of the days when nearly everyone kept a horse.  In time, an Exxon station, the Winterport Mercantile, and the restored Treat Building replaced the Rankin store, the corn and flour mill, the vest factory, and the Frank Haley business where he sold everything from stoves to caskets.  On Steamboat Avenue, there was a vinegar factory, along with coopers shops, fishermen’s shacks and the wharf for the Boston boats.  Although many of the 19th century buildings still stand, all have seen numerous changes in use and purpose.

The Union Meeting House, Inc. is an organization committed to the preservation of this historic landmark. Since 1984, the small vestry building beside the church has been the home of the Winterport Historical Association. Built in 1833 on the terraced slope above Main Street, it is a fine example of Gothic Revival architecture. Although it no longer functions as a church, it still adds dignity and grace to this river town. The clock in the tower continues to chime the hours and the Revere Bell (one of only 112 known to exist) has been rung on many memorable occasions.

The Old Winterport Commercial House continues in the tradition of the original Commercial House, which was opened in 1833. Originally, this inn was a stopping point for the stagecoach line from Belfast to Bangor and served the traveling public who came here via the Penobscot River.  The papers for the incorporation of Winterport were signed in this building as well as the celebration of the incorporation in March of 1860. The years have brought fire, changes in ownership, and varied uses, but once again it offers attractive accommodations.

The village area of the town, including portions of several side streets, are considered of such architectural and historic significance that the area has been named the Winterport Historic District by the U.S. Dept. of the Interior.

The Educational System in Winterport has changed considerably from its inception. In 1860, the town had 16 district schools each established by the neighborhood it served. A few of the old one-room school houses still survive, having been adapted to new uses such as the American Legion Hall, the Columbian Hall, and the church at Ellingwood's Corner.

State regulations eventually made consolidation inevitable. The pupils were then transported to the village schools, and as the population increased new schools were required. The Leroy H. Smith School was built in 1953 and serves kindergarten through 4th grade. The Samuel Wagner Middle School serves students of grades 5 through 8. Hampden Academy is the secondary school for the towns of Winterport, Newburgh, Hampden, and Frankfort.

Houses of Worship include the Baptist Church on Coles Corner Road, St. Gabriel’s Catholic Church on Main Street, and the United Methodist Church at Ellingwood's Corner.

The Original Town Hall was built in 1884 in the center of town. It was the site of public meetings, dances, entertainments, school functions, basketball games, and for a time it was a movie theater. The lower level at one time housed the fire engine and a classroom when schools were crowded. The building was torn down in 1970.  In 2017 a new town hall will be dedicated.

A Water System for the village was installed in 1896. The original standpipe lasted until 1988, when it was replaced by the larger 800,000 gallon tank at the other end of town. The old pictures, dating about 1900 show the two hose houses, one at each end of the town. These towers were essential for drying the hoses used by the fire department at that time. Today, modern firefighting equipment along with volunteer firefighters and EMTs operate out of a new station.

Winterport Postal Service - Before the day of Rural Free Delivery, there was a post office in the village, as well as offices in North Winterport, White's Corner, Ellingwood's Corner, and West Winterport.  Eventually the post offices were consolidated and located in a brick house on Main Street, the former home of Archibald Jones. This building also served as a U.S. Custom House.  Our current post office on Main Street was built in 1975.

The Winterport Marine and Boatyard, at the foot of Commercial Street, has been established to store and service boats, thus providing another link with the town's nautical past.  They also provide dock space for the vessels of residents and visitors alike.

(Thanks to Teddy Weston, Winterport’s Archivist and Historian in Residence)

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