The saying, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” seems particularly appropriate for this column, which began as a look at a legendary “pumpkin freshet” on the Androscoggin River, the Sandy River and other waterways.

The research took some twists and turns into political satire, which has some timeliness this month. Mixed with a good measure of Maine history and humor, here’s the result.

A “pumpkin freshet” was an autumn phenomenon that may never be seen again, now that all kinds of dams and flood controls are in place along our rivers.

It was 1869 when torrential rain early in October sent swollen streams over their banks and across fertile farmland. Many of those fields were planted to pumpkins, an important livestock food source. The force of that unseasonable flood tore thousands of those large orange gourds from their vines, and they floated away.

It’s said that the riverside fields of Canton were covered with ripe pumpkins when the storms came, and the Androscoggin soon became filled from shore to shore with floating pumpkins.

As the floodwaters subsided, it was possible to retrieve a large part of the crop. Local residents who lived near the river carted as many of the pumpkins as possible back to the farms between Lewiston-Auburn and Farmington, where they could be used as cattle feed.

I remember my grandfather telling about the pumpkin freshet. Our Auburn farm is on the banks of the Androscoggin. To the best of my recollection, my grandfather didn’t say my ancestors gathered any pumpkins from the river, but I can imagine how that remarkable event may have looked more than 100 years ago.

Stories of that time also described the pumpkin freshet’s impact along the Sandy River, a Kennebec River tributary. The onslaught of pumpkins was said to have been a factor in washing away a bridge on that stream.

Pumpkin freshets also took place in numerous other states. The Susquehanna River in eastern Pennsylvania is the site of similar legends. It was a major flood of that river on Oct. 5, 1786, that became known as “the first Great Pumpkin Flood.”

This is where my research brought Seba Smith into the picture. Smith, born in Buckfield in 1792, was an early American humorist. He went to Bowdoin College and moved to Portland where he edited the Eastern Argus and founded the Portland Courier, which he edited from 1830 to 1837.

Smith was one of the first writers to use American vernacular, later popularized by Mark Twain. A character named Major Jack Downing was an invention of Smith’s, who was seen as a dry and satirical political pundit of that time.

As an example of the influence of Smith’s writings, internet sources say there’s an 1833 entry in the diary of John Quincy Adams, sixth president of the United States.

Adams tells of a conversation with Davy Crockett, who was newly returned to Congress. Crockett told Adams he had taken for lodgings “two rooms on the first floor of a boarding-house, where he expected to pass the winter and to have for a fellow-lodger Major Jack Downing, the only person in whom he had any confidence for information of what the Government was doing.”

It was a reference to Smith’s writings about the Major, and evidence that Crockett and Adams were familiar with the work of native-Mainer Seba Smith.

By the way, the phrase that started this column, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” was originated by Seba Smith.

One of Smith’s books, “Way Down East,” has a chapter about a pumpkin freshet. And that’s how this column “skinned a cat” and tied some Maine history to Buckfield’s Seba Smith and the floating pumpkin stories.

When you see all those grinning jack-o’-lanterns that will be appearing as Halloween approaches, you may wonder if they are remembering those tales of a long-ago ride down the Androscoggin.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]m.


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