A few weeks ago a group of us went up the coast to the Maine Maritime in Bath. After spending a proper length of time checking out the many fine exhibits, we continued down river to Phippsburg and the popular Popham Beach State Park. It was packed with people – natives and summer visitors – doing what people are supposed do on beautiful summer days in Maine – having lots of fun.
It's been more than 400 years since an outfit known as the Plymouth Company attempted to establish an English colony with 120 hearty souls at the mouth of the mighty Kennebec River – where hundreds of people now played. Of course, the river wasn't known as the Kennebec back then - mighty or otherwise. Back then the Kennebec was known as “Sagadahoc,” which, I think means "Colonize at your own risk."
Back then the group of colonists and sailors was led by George Popham, and in what sounds like an obvious attempt at buttering up their fearless leader, the colonists, soon after landing, voted to name their settlement just Popham, since resort beaches had not yet been invited. Turns out they didn't mean to name it after George but after Sir John Popham, George's uncle and Popham's chief patron. But at that point no one really cared who it was, and since the entire venture was less than a smashing success it was a pretty empty honor anyway.
The way I heard the story, the colonists arrived on a Monday and by the following Sunday they had built a church, a modest fort and put down non-refundable deposits on 50 “starter homes.” There is little doubt that they also would have saved up to 15 percent on their auto insurance with Geico if only they had automobiles with them at the time.
What makes what they did even more impressive is that these hearty colonists on the Kennebec accomplished all this without the help of a Home Depot, a Wal-Mart or an Ace Hardware. As far as we know there wasn't even a Reny's in those bleak days of 1607. We can only imagine how different the story of Maine would have been if only these people had the retail opportunities available to us today.
Despite all that hard work things didn't go well for the Popham colony and before the year was over the two ships (the “Gift of God and the “Mary and John”) had returned to England leaving behind a skeleton crew of 45 of either the heartiest or the numbest colonists ever.
One of the most memorable things the colonists did before most of them packed up and went back to Jolly Old England was take out their ship-building tools and built a 50-foot pinnace, or sailing vessel, which historians say was the first wooden vessel built by Europeans in the New World. They named the pinnace Virginia.
Since there were no governmental bureaus or maritime commissions or bureaucrats; and since there were even fewer regulatory agencies and tax collecting officials and appraisers around Popham at the time, we're told that first vessel went through its life entirely uninspected, totally unregulated and completely untaxed.
These days, a group with the limited resources of the Popham People would have been doomed. At least a group of those first colonists had something going for them. Enough carpentry skills to build a means of excape.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly throughout
New England. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org or 899-1868.