Katahdin: A Land
Sherman, Circa 1937.
undisputed monolithic icon of northern
Maine is Katahdin. The coast has lighthouses as their
from the Maine woods we have Katahdin.
are there to guide. While Katahdin is seventy miles southwest of
Prairie Family Farm, the mountain is so prominent that it's top can be
on clear days from
our highest hills and peaks.
Last week I had an
organic meeting in central
Maine and drove south along I-95 past Katahdin to get there. This 115
stretch between Houlton and Bangor took ninety minutes to drive.
hundred years ago it took Indians and pioneers two weeks of canoe
complete a similar journey.
the week northern Maine had been clobbered with a storm that dropped up
to a foot or two of snow. As often happens, the
deepest snow fell in
the Katahdin valley – the sparsely populated townships near
Katahdin and the area
whose weather is seriously impacted by the impressive Katahdin.
down early, the morning was calm,
crystal clear and hovering around zero. The snow had been wet and the
since the storm had been uncharacteristically windless so clinging now
frozen to the boughs of the spruce and fir trees was a 4-5 inch layer
pristine white snow, every bit as perfect and unbelievable as a
painting on a
Leanin’ Tree Christmas card.
the highway shoulder was piled deepest as I approached the southern
northern Maine – that would be the Penobscot River
– where our familiar land
ends and that different world begins.
last towns this side of the Penobscot and staring right into
Katahdin is Sherman, Maine, a small outpost in the Maine woods.
One Room Schoolhouse
we had a
friend who as a new teacher taught in a one room schoolhouse in Sherman
shadow of Katahdin back in the 1920s and 1
K- Grade 8,
ages five to fifteen, three foot to six foot tall, all crowded into a
boarded mightily spare wood building, lacking insulation and outfitted
almost adequate woodstove.
nothing between the schoolhouse door and the breathtaking view of
except for some fast moving air. When it was snowing outside and the
wind was blowing a gale it was also snowing inside that bare little
most northern Maine towns Sherman was a
woods township with the cleared ground planted to potatoes and oats.
to northern Maine but common to the Katahdin valley, Sherman also had
where dairy was bigger and potatoes was smaller, due to the
that as you get away from the sandy loams up north comprising the
center of the
Potato Empire, the cleared ground was not as well-drained or early and
more fit for growing sod for hay and pasture.
pronunciation is independent and unruly.
are embedded in local dialect.
“Katahdin” for instance.
an Indian word which means “Greatest Mountain”, which
explains why we
don’t call it Mount Katahdin (Mount Greatest Mountain is way too
many words for a
northern Mainer). Maine is quite partial to bestowing its iconic names
creations that are a source of pride. Of course,
Katahdin hair sheep. Then when the era’s best potato variety
came along, it
just seemed to make sense when it was released in 1932 to call it
(You’ll find our Onaway
potato has Katahdin in its parentage).
are particularly brutal when it comes to handling
down along the coast tend to lose them
(Bar Harbor sounds out as "Baa Haabaa").
up here in northern Maine tend to grab them floating
words to make the process of speaking go
(“Goin’ down to Auguster,”
“Headin’ up to Madawasker”). The upshot
is we have a
short season in northern Maine and there’s no point wasting
time saying out real
long words when a short version would do just fine. Nowadays,
we’d allow that
Katahdin is still spok
every day in Maine potato country
me a load of Katahdins to put up the fore noon,”
them Superiors not nearly as late as a Katahdin,”
thar don’t take to blight near as quick as Katahdins”).
So for many reasons
there’s a pile of practice and daily experience behind the
northern Maine pronunciation of Katahdin.
of mastery the original Katahdin of three syllables has been reduced
down a tad to about one and a half. A well placed ‘R’ shortens up
that tedious (‘tedjus’) long
middle syllable. Phonetically speaking,
(Note: no pauses; quick start with a forceful ‘Kt’
be spoken fast, as though you’re in a hurry, after all
winter is always
on the way).
before World War II, schools started up in November after cold weather
brought the farming
season to an end. School continued through winter ‘til mud
season in the Spring,
allowing families to gear up for the farming season once the mud dried
the 1920s had been real good years and then the thirties were very very
their families make ends
meet most of the boys in Sherman school ran traplines for beaver and
tend these traplines
before school and show up at the schoolhouse laden with pack baskets
and traps and of course snowshoes, rifles and knives.
pelts and snowshoes were parked outside leaned up against the
negotiation and mutual
agreement the guns, knives and traps were stowed under the
were an outdoor people and these
were outdoor kids. Katahdin was their constant companion.
was their guidepost in the woods and
the center of their frigid world.
The Outside World
in places like Sherman, electric power lines to farms were still
invention of battery powered radios
brought to folks in Sherman and rural America the new option of a
glimpse into the wide outside world through radio broadcasts.
generations ago the most famous radio
personality was the renowned world traveler and story teller Lowell
in 1930, his regular national radio
broadcast “Lowell Thomas and the News” carried on
NBC and CBS, continued for
almost five decades. Lowell brought into view
places like Cairo, Cripple Creek and Katmandu. To backwoods Maine
who’d never imagined venturing away from home, adventurer Lowell Thomas
came to possess
god-like status and gravitas.
until the day Lowell's story telling brought him to northern Maine.
Blow after Blow
of Lowell’s listeners didn’t realize it but he was
what’s known as a “cold
most often read scripts
live on the air that someone else had written without ever having
text. And most times he performed impeccably as the master story teller.
one day Lowell’s subject turned out to
be the wilds of northern Maine.
Sherman ears attentive like never before, his story unfolded. He soon
reference to Katahdin, royally mispronouncing it repeatedly as
Cat-ta-din’ and kept
on a-readin' the script in complete
oblivion to his
stunning blow after blow of error. At the first blunder every jaw in
year old listener on up there was instantaneous
shock in Sherman: this god of the radio waves rambling along
didn’t know what the
heck he was talking about.
had been a cold winter day in Sherman.
in Sherman got a big
real world education they hadn’t
bargained for when they
crawled out of bed that morning. At
end of the day some of their innocence was left behind. Yet they were
now a notch
wiser to the ways of the outside world. And maybe j
to cross over to that far shore of the Penobscot River.