Lois Varney Article

The Boyhood Home of Nathaniel Hawthorne

By Lois Varney

Nathaniel Hawthorne was born in Salem, Massachusetts on July 4, 1804.  As a famous 19th century author, he is most often associated with that state, for it was also there that his novels were written.

But Maine can make a stronger case for influencing the man who wroth The Scarlet Letter: his formative years were spent on the shores of Sebago Lake in a house which still stands as proof that the young Hawthorne did indeed roam the woods and fields of Raymond.

(Strictly speaking, of course, even those boyhood years were spent as a citizen of Massachusetts, for Maine was still a province of that state.)

The town of Raymond had evolved from one of the grants known as “Canada” towns which were formed from land given as a reward to those soldiers (or their heirs) who had made an expedition to Quebec in 1690 to put an end to the Indian raids which resulted from the French and Indian War.  A year before Hawthorne’s birth Raymond had emerged from its former status of the township of Raymondtown.

Richard Manning of Salem, Mass., grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, had obtained several thousand acres of land in this new township. After his death, his son, Richard, became a resident in the new town so that he might serve to manage the large holding which his family had inherited.

Manning soon married the granddaughter of the region’s first settler and built for her a rather imposing mansion known as “Manning’s Folly” because of its size and the wealth required to build it.

A home for the widow Hawthorne

Richard Manning apparently regarded the house as a proper edifice for one of his standing in the community and three years later built another large dwelling, nearly identical to his own, for his widowed sister and her children. Elizabeth Hawthorne, it was decided by her brothers, needed the solitude and retreat offered by the new town in the Province of Maine.

Nat had been the second of three children born to Nathaniel Hawthorne and Elizabeth Clark Manning. His father, a descendant of William Hawthorne who came to America with John Winthrop in 1630, was a sea captain sailing out of Salem.  In 1808, Captain Hawthorne contracted yellow fever while in Surinam and died of the disease.  His wife went at once into strict seclusion and shinned society for the rest of her life.

It was for this reason that she accepted her brothers’ suggestion that she should move her family to the wilderness of the new town of Raymond.

Although Nat had visited with his Uncle Richard in Raymond prior to this time, he apparently did not make the move with his brother and sisters, for he had received an injury to his foot and was obliged to use crutches for a time. Perhaps this is why his biographers disagree as to the exact years that he lived in Raymond.

At the age of nine or ten, his health improved, and he was taken to his new home on the stagecoach line which was owned by his uncles, the Manning brothers.

Perhaps his mother’s new home was ready for occupancy when he arrived in Maine, or perhaps he dwelt with his Uncle Richard for a time, for again sources differ as to when the Hawthorne House was built.

However, sometime between 1813 and 1816, there arose on the opposite bank of Dingley Brook a fine white house with two massive chimneys.  Large, airy windows fitted with glass imported from Belgium, allowed the pine-scented air to sweep through the tall, two-story house on warm spring days.

Outside, a picket fence surrounded the small garden, and butternut trees shaded it from the hot summer sun.  A young orchard was planted in the rear to provide the growing family with fresh fruit.

Joys of a Maine youth

Judging from letters preserved by the Manning family, Nathaniel, freed from his lameness, enjoyed these free days of his youth.  He writes of fishing in Dingley Brook, where even today there is a large, flat rock known as “Nat’s Rock”, or catching “black-spotted” trout (salmon) which weighed upward of twenty pounds from famed Sebago Lake.

This lake, frozen, provided skating for the young man in the winter. Of this experience he writes:

  • “I would skate all alone on Sebago Lake, with the deep shadows of the icy hills on either hand. When I found myself far away from home, and weary with the exhaustion of skating, I would sometimes take refuge in a log cabin, where half a tree would be burning on the broad hearth. I would sit in the ample chimney and look at the stars through the great aperture through which the flames went roaring up.  Ah, how well I recall the summer days, also, when with my gun I roamed at will through the woods of Maine.”

During the years spent in Maine, Richard Manning must have assumed the fatherly role in guiding his young nephew. He was himself childless, Nathaniel had free access to this Uncle Richard’s rather extensive library. From Nat’s correspondence we learn that it was at this time that he read Pilgrim’s Progress and the plays of Shakespeare.

A journal recovered

Perhaps Manning recognized and promoted an affinity for literature in the boy, for it was purportedly at the urging of his uncle that Nat at this time begin a journal to record his experiences, interests and acquaintances.  In the journal he is supposed to have begun his literary career, giving pen to his first ghost stories inspired by conversations overheard from men who frequented his uncle’s store.

This handwritten journal surfaced at the close of the Civil War in rather mysterious and sometimes doubted circumstances. Excerpts from the journal were published in a Portland newspaper, and while some questioned its authenticity, the editors received many letters from Raymond readers which corroborated the published account.  Certainly those who diligently preserve the house today, wish to believe that the seeds for Nat’s genius were sown on the shores of Sebago Lake.

The young Hawthorne wish to to go to sea and follow in his father’s footsteps, but his mother never had overcome her dread of the water.  One illustration of her feelings was recorded by Hawthorne in his journal when he wrote:

  • “Mother is said, says she will not consented to my swimming anymore in the mill pond, with the boys, fearing that in sport my mouth might get kicked open, and then sorrow for a dead son be added to that for my dead father, which which she says would break her heart.  I love to swim, but shall not disobey my mother.”

By 1819, Nathaniel’s carefree days in Raymond were about over, for his family decided that he must return to Salem where he could continue his schooling in preparation for entering Bowdoin in the fall of 1821.  He may have returned to Raymond for his college vacations, but shortly after his graduation of 1825, Elizabeth Hawthorne closed her home in Raymond and returned to Salem.

The house after the Hawthornes

With the departure of Mrs. Hawthorne perhaps the home was closed for a time, for the size and cost of upkeep were prohibitive factors which would have prevented the average Raymond resident from seeking to acquire it. But eventually someone recognized its potential as a boarding house and tavern and history records the building as being known as “Colonel Scribner’s Tavern”.

It is not known when it was operated as such, or how successful a venture it proved to be, but one’s imagination could guess that it was a lively spot. A congenial host could provide a glowing hearth and a warm toddy to the weary passenger making a stage journey from Portland to Harrison. Or one could picture the ribald and hearty stories told over a glass of punch as the river men who drafted huge booms of logs down Sebago Lake paused to refresh themselves.

In 1839, the opening of the Cumberland and Oxford canal would have provided the tavern and boarding house with customers for a canal boat landing was located at the mouth of Dingley Brook. (A convenient landing for those passengers and crewmen who wished to break the monotony of the three-day journey from Harrison to Portland.)

From tavern to house of worship

Richard Manning had died in 1831, but in his will he had made provision for a church to be built to serve the religious needs of this little community.  Manning’s widow, Susan, had fallen to prey to the charms of a French dancing master who had served as a lieutenant in Napoleon’s army.

Descendants of Mrs. Manning’s family have records which present the dancing master as a bit of a scoundrel with more interest in the Manning holdings than in the widow’s charms.

Be that as it may, Francis Radoux is credited with the idea of carrying out Manning’s provision for a church by suggesting that the bequest could best be accommodated by renovating the former Hawthorne home into a suitable premises for a place of worship.

Acting on his suggestion, the chimneys, partitions, fireplaces, and the floor between the two stories were removed, leaving only a large empty shell.  Wooden pews and a large meeting-house door were installed and the meeting house was ready for business.

Known for many years as the Radoux Meeting House, it did not belong to any one society, but was used as a free-meeting house open to any organization which wished to hold meetings. It did not have any regular pastor.  Early in the 1850’s, the Reverend Mr. Richardson of Otisfield preached the dedicatory sermon.

A free-meeting house provided by an early proprietor seems to be a lovely symbol of peace and sharing. However, it proved to be less than ideal, for as no one group could be said to own it, no one assumed the responsibility for its upkeep and during the next twenty five years the inevitable disrepair presented some problems.

In 1877 a parish was formed that purchased the deed to the meetinghouse for $400.  It then became known as the Radoux Union Meeting Parish.

Hawthorne remembered

This apparently did not solve the problem of upkeep for a journal of Abbie Mussey, a local lady, records in 1882, a plea for recognition and restoration of Hawthorne’s boyhood home which appeared in the Portland Press of that year.

The writer, identified only as “C”, recalls its beginnings as an appropriate residence for “one of the greatest, if not the greatest of American authors,” he deplores the state of decay of the residence and ends his pleas, “We do hope something will be done to preserve this relic, for in coming years pilgrims from parts of the world will search for it as an object of constantly increasing interest.  We cross the ocean to find early homes of lesser men.”

Perhaps no one crossed the ocean in answer to his plea for it was thirty years before his cause was once more taken up.  It wasn’t pilgrims from abroad who found it, but the summer population, wealthy refugees from the big cities, who had begun to find the Sebago area a superb summer playground.

In 1921, a Willis C. Norris from Connecticut, serving as financial chairman of a new Hawthorne Association sent a letter to influential literary figures around the country inviting them to aid in the restoration of the Hawthorne House.

In his letter, Mr. Norris recapped a brief history of the home and stated that:

  • “We organized and incorporated the ‘Hawthorne Community Association’ with about one hundred and fifty members and now have a deed to the property. The object is to perpetuate the memory of Nathaniel Hawthorne and preserve the building which was his boyhood home. To pay tribute to the early settlers who later worshipped in this building and built up this splendid community.  To create friendly relations among all the people both native and cottagers. To encourage social, patriotic, educational, and religious sentiment and make it a community center for all in this vicinity.”

Life membership in this association was offered for twenty-five dollars.

The effort must have been rewarding for the house was painted, a hot-air furnace was installed, electric lights added and folding wooden chairs replaced most of the former pews.

Mrs. Charlotte Gulick of the well-known Gulick Camps on Raymond Cape, presented the association with a fine Steinway piano.  The piano was a great help in other fund-raising entertainments which were presented with the talent found in the boys and girls summer camps located in the vicinity.

With necessary repairs made, interest in Hawthorne’s home flourished for a few years, but the depression of the 1930’s followed by the Second World War allowed the home to once more go begging for attention.

During these years it did serve as sort of a community hall. The local grade school used it as a theater to present its Christmas pageants, benefit dances, or socials were held as fund raising activities to aid the was effort, and for a short time a shaky projector with shakier sound provided movies for gas-rationed residents of the community.

A more stable economy in the 50’s and 60’s saw a revived interest in the home. The Association was re-formed with newer members from the summer colony and a new generation of natives. Once more the building was repainted inside and out. This time, with an eye toward period restoration, the painting was done with a colonial blue-grey paint for the interior, but the traditional white was used on the outside.

The old doors which served the meeting house were replaced with those in keeping with the original architecture and included a wooden fanlight and glass sidelights.

Electric chandeliers now shed a soft light more in keeping with the character of the building than the former glass globes.

By Lois Varney of South Casco, Maine

*Date and name of publication not available. Appears to be from around 1985 in a lakes area newspaper.