"Doing stuff like this is one of the reasons we moved back to Maine," said Greg Smith. A group of us were sitting on piles of lumber sharing a cold beer and pizza Saturday evening and talking about the house raising that had just happened. Greg is the crew foreman for Kurt Christensen Custom Homes, one of the several contractors that donated their time to build a new home for Elroy Gregory.
Greg said, "I used to live in Florida and there were so many new folks moving in all the time that I didn't see much sense of community. Certainly nothing like we have here in Maine. I don't think you'd find the whole town pulling together there like they've done here today in Sebago. It is really great living in Maine!"
Elroy Gregory (76) lost his Sebago home to fire on March 22, 2004. He was not insured and lost nearly everything. Three generations of the Gregory family had lived in the 100+-year-old farmhouse, and it was the only home Elroy had ever known. The entire community has come together with an outpouring of support and donations to help, just as Mainers have been doing for more than 200 years. Less than two months after the fire Sebago friends and neighbors gathered for an old-fashioned house raising and built him a new 32' x 24' home.
I was proud of the way that the community had rallied to Elroy's aid. I have an image of house raising and barn raising as unique to rural America in the 18th and 19th centuries where the entire community came together in a one or two day event to assemble a house or barn for one of its members.
These events were essential in small, rural communities and were an occasion for helping each other and for socializing. There was an implicit obligation on the members of the community that if you helped your neighbor he would in turn help you when you were in need.
While the tradition continues today in some Amish and Mennonite communities in Ohio and parts of Canada, it is less common in our 21st century. It is generally unheard of in parts of America where communities are often new and less cohesive. However, in smaller towns of Maine that nurture a sense of community and caring for one another, a house raising doesn't seem out of place.
The Gregory family is one of the older Sebago families, and Elroy is well known to most in town as a quiet independent Maine Yankee. Since the fire people have been unselfish in donating to a relief fund set up by the Sebago Community Fire Company for him as well as to collection cans in stores around town. Town organizations have held fundraisers for him, including a supper that fed nearly 500 people put on by the Sebago Volunteer Association, a card night held by the Lions Club, and a 50-50 raffle by the Sebago firefighters. Elroy used these funds to purchase some of the materials needed to build his new home.
The lion's share of materials for his new home came, however, from donations. I spoke with Sebago fire fighter Bruce Knowlton who has been the main organizer of the house raising. He said that he had talked with Elroy right after the fire about rebuilding, and Elroy had been receptive to the idea.
"Could you take care of things?" Elroy had asked Bruce.
Bruce said, "So what else could I do, but agree to pick up the ball and help him out? I wondered what I would do if the situation were reversed and I needed some help myself!"
Bruce and his wife (and fire fighter) Lynn drew up plans for a modest one story cape to replace the old farmhouse and reviewed them with Elroy. Bruce then assembled a list of materials and solicited donations of building material and professional services from 15 firms and contractors in the Lakes Region. To feed the work crew Lynn solicited donations from 6 local stores and organized groups to feed the workers. Kurt Christensen organized the Sebago contractors, which included his crew and crews from John J. Porter Contracting, Lakeview Roofing and BK Contracting, all of whom donated their time to build and frame the house.
All week materials arrived at Elroy's to prepare for the house raising. Kurt's crew built the deck on the new foundation the day before. On Saturday crews were at work by 6:00 a.m. and there was a steady flow of workers all day long. I counted more than 50 people from Sebago who came and helped to hammer nails, haul and cut boards, to lend their hands to raising the walls of the house, and to socialize with their neighbors. At 8:00 a.m. Mabel Olden stopped by with homemade blueberry muffins for the crew. At 8:38 a.m. the north wall was completed and raised in place using the Maine pine boards that Elroy had hauled from the Limington Sawmill. By 10:45 a.m. all four walls were raised in place. By the end of the Saturday the house was completely framed in, an amazing amount of work in an incredibly short time.
The donations of cash, materials and labor paint a forceful image of community spirit. I understand why Greg Smith is proud to live in Maine, a place that takes care of its own.
As we left the house on Saturday evening, Bruce and Elroy were walking through the new house making plans for the interior work. Donations are still needed to help finish and furnish Elroy's house. So far two organizations have committed to finishing an interior room each, but there are opportunities for others to help.
Money can be donated to the Gregory Fire Fund c/o the Sebago Community Fire Company, PO Box 179, Sebago, ME 04029, or contact Firefighter Bruce Knowlton at 642-5045 if your group can help.
This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on May 20, 2004 under the title "Old-fashioned house raising gives fire victim home".
Last updated June 20, 2004
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree
Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree