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Where is Backnippin anyway?

September 2, 2004

Every small town in Maine has old neighborhoods with strange names that make you wonder "What does that mean?". In Sebago we have a Hog Fat Hill, Mc's Corner, Tiger Hill, Pantherville, and Mud City. Here are the stories of two abandoned communities in Sebago - Backnippin and the Folly.


John B. Brown died in 1848 and
is buried in Backnippin

I have stood before John B. Brown's weathered old slate gravestone from 1848 in the high summer, under the shade of the silent pines and birches enclosing the Brown family graveyard. And I have skied there in the winter, when everything was blanketed in snow and quieter still, with only the sound of the wind in the trees and softly falling snow. The silence and the gravestones are all that remain of the once active community of Backnippin, along with tree-filled cellar holes and stonewalls. The forest has reclaimed the farms and fields.

What was life like here for the Brown family and their neighbors when Backnippin was a thriving community? We know that John Brown was one of the early Sebago settlers when the town was formed in 1826 from parts of Baldwin. He and his family settled on the ridge of land west of what is now Brown's Pond. They built a home and a sawmill at the foot of the pond. Two other early settlers at Backnippin were John Libby and John S. Meserve, who built homes just up the road from the Brown's in the 1830's. [John Meserve's brother Samuel also moved to Sebago in 1830 and built the farmhouse where we now live, on the outskirts of Backnippin.]

The lonely Brown family graveyard is
all that marks the old Sebago community
of Backnippin

Although the Backnippin community never grew to the extent that they had a church, schoolhouse nor post office, as many other neighborhoods in Sebago did, it was vibrant. Eventually five families lived in Backnippin. The 1861 map of Sebago shows five homes along Backnippin Road, including the early Brown, Meserve and Libby farms as well as G. W. Jewell and D. B. Brown homesteads. When the last Backnippiner died in the 1940's the community ceased to exist except in people's memories.

Maps no longer show Backnippin, although the Brown cemetery sits beside Backnippin Road, a rocky dirt lane that runs from Hancock Pond to Mud City (now known as Center Sebago). Another road connects Backnippin to Hog Fat Hill.

The origin of how Backnippin got its name, and what it means, remains a mystery. One yarn has it that when Sebago voted to become a "dry" town in 1851 and banned alcohol, the folks living in Backnippin continued making their own (probably hard cider) and if a feller wanted a little "nip" he could go back up the hill to get one there. Another yarn said that the folks in Backnippin were always backbiting and gossiping. I've not been able to find a single grain of truth in either story. All we know for sure is that Backnippin is a lonely spot that has hidden well its stories.

Folly Road and Pingree's Folly

Levi Kenison lost a young son and daughter in 1861.
They are buried together in the
family plot on the Folly Road

The Sebago community along Folly Road and Peaked Mountain was larger than Backnippin, and had nearly 100 people living there at one time. Daniel and Josiah McKenney built a mill on North West River in 1830 to saw hemlock logs into boards, and other mills were later built on the river to meet the demands for building materials. Other early settlers living on the Folly included Levi Kenison and Freeman Thorne and their families. The Folly Road community was large enough to support a school district, and the first school was established in 1837 in James Gray's home. Later, in 1854, a schoolhouse was built for the district, which operated until 1905.

These old farms and mills are now all gone, and even the dams on the North West River are only piles of granite. The schoolhouse was torn down in 1920. Only the cellar holes and graveyards of the people that used to live in this community remain.

About a mile down the Folly Road from Route 107 are the Kenison and Thorne graveyards and the cellar holes of their farmhouses. Two Kenison graves touch your heart. Little Osborne Kenison (2 years, 21 days) and his sister Isabel (7 weeks, 5 days) died within two days of each other in 1861, probably during the diphtheria epidemic that raged here in the 1860's and claimed so many young lives. They were Levi's young son and daughter, and on their single gravestone he had carved two turtledoves and this poignant inscription. "They was joined in life and in death not divided."

Jeff, the faithful family dog,
was buried next to his master on the Folly

In this graveyard is also the only gravestone to a pet I have ever seen. The old town records show that Levi regularly paid the license fee each year for his dog Jeff until 1900, the year that Levi died. In a grave next to his master is a small stone for "Our Dog Jeff", a clear demonstration of love for a faithful companion.

Mr. Pingree is responsible for the community's name. He attempted to build a log chute or flume to move logs from the woodlot to the mills, inspired no doubt by the log flumes used in other parts of the country. His elaborate project failed and became known as "Pingree's Folly", or later just "the Folly".

Today there is renewed interest in this quiet corner of Sebago, and a number of new homes have been carved out of the woods along Folly Road. Developers have proposed housing developments along the road as well, and it is likely that the active community that used to be known as the Folly will once again be part of Sebago's life.

These are only two of the old names in Sebago. Perhaps I'll try and tell you the stories about the others sometime in the future. In the meantime, if anyone has any other stories about Backnippin or the Folly, please let me know.

This article was edited and published in the Neighbors Section of the Portland Press Herald on September 2, 2004 under the title "Backnippin and 'The Folly': Few signs of life remain in once-busy Sebago neighborhoods".
Copyright © 2004, Portland Press Herald, used here by permission

Last updated September 30, 2004

Copyright © 2004, Allen Crabtree