Sept. 3, 1853: The Harnden & Brother spool factory on the Kennebec River in Augusta catches fire about 2 a.m. The fire eventually consumes a grist mill, machine shops, six sawmills, a boardinghouse and other commercial enterprises.

Before the fire spreads beyond the three-story, 160-by-60-foot spool mill, a night watchman and other people try to use a pump to put out the flames, but the fire’s intensity drives them away, and it soon spreads to the grist mill.

Firefighters are able to save several other nearby buildings, but the damage puts more than 200 people out of work.

It was Augusta’s worst fire to date, but it is exceeded 12 years later by the Great Fire of 1865, which wipes out most of the downtown commercial district.

Sept. 3, 1871: A fire breaks out shortly after midnight in a shoe-stitching plant on White Street in Richmond. It spreads rapidly to Main Street, igniting more than 30 buildings and destroying 13 of them.

Some men fighting the fire abandon the task to protect their own homes, and women take over the job of operating the firefighting equipment.

Sept. 3, 1902: On her 53rd birthday, South Berwick novelist, poet and short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) suffers an injury in a carriage accident that effectively ends her writing career.

Sarah Orne Jewett, 1896.  Genthe photograph collection, Library of Congress

It happens as Jewett is taking her sister Mary and two friends from South Berwick to Berwick. As the horse descends a hill, it steps on some loose stones, loses its footing and falls, tipping the carriage over. One of the friends is bruised. The other friend and Jewett’s sister are unharmed. Jewett, however, suffers blows to her head and spine and never recovers fully.

A year later, she still is spending much of each day in bed. She can write letters and read lying down, but she cannot sit at a desk.

Her condition is a far cry from that of earlier years. In 1882, for example, she traveled blissfully to Europe with her friend and companion Annie Fields on a six-month tour of Ireland, England, Norway, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France. She made three additional voyages to Europe after that.

Traveling – even close to home – provided inspiration for her writing. She and Fields rented a cottage in Martinsville, a midcoast Maine village where Jewett began absorbing details of the landscape and people that she later would put to use in a novella, “The Country of the Pointed Firs,” her best-known work.

Her first publication, a story in Atlantic Monthly, appeared in print when she was 19. “Pointed Firs” was published in 1896, when she was 47. The hallmark of all her work is character development and the depth of local color, making the writing emblematic of the regionalist movement of the time.

After the accident, Jewett stays closer to home, although she does travel to Boston, Mount Desert Island and other places not too far from South Berwick. She takes some satisfaction from seeing her previously unpublished work appear in print.

On June 23, 1909, she suffers a cerebral hemorrhage – her second – and dies the next day.

Biographer Elizabeth Silverthorne provides a fitting eulogy for a writer admired by both the public and her peers: “Sarah Orne Jewett explored the ethos of New England and preserved forever an important segment of its history along with the homely details of a vanished way of life, including patterns of speech, behavior and thought. In her writing and in her life she exemplified qualities of simplicity, serenity, sincerity, and sympathy, along with a wise optimism. She was secure in her belief that after the long chill of winter, the warmth of spring will follow in the lives of men as in nature.”

Jewett’s home on Central Square in South Berwick is a National Historic Landmark. It is a house museum owned and operated by Historic New England, a nonprofit preservation group.

Joseph Owen is an author, retired newspaper editor and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. Owen’s book, “This Day in Maine,” can be ordered at islandportpress.com. To get a signed copy use promo code signedbyjoe at checkout. Joe can be contacted at: [email protected]

 


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