Take a walk. It's an autumn day. A Sunday in November, say. Go to the woods on the southeast corner of the Farley Fields, and follow the path with the sign that says "Commons Trail." Do you see the gaggle of ducks flying noisily off the pond? The spindly trees shedding their last brown leaves into the turgid water? Keep walking across Baxter Lane, and then take a left down Hovey Road. You may see a pensive Irish Setter watching you quietly from a yard, turn onto the trail here. There will be mud by the pines, and an opaque pool with planks running over it. Is one of them broken inward? Do you see a cumbersome rock lying on the trail like a giant's nickel? The forest you're standing in is part of the 1,000-acre Town Commons, a great big nook of public land that has been part of Brunswick's heritage for nearly 300 years.
The Commons is "an HISTORIC LANDMARK," according to an emphatic 1968 Town of Brunswick resolution, and it's true, the Commons has a LONG HISTORY. It was in 1779 that Belcher Noyes, a Brunswick proprietor perhaps best-known for his troublesome indigestion, stepped on the scene. Belcher appropriated the 1,000 acres north of Middle Bay Road to the Town Commons "for the use and improvement of the Inhabitants of said Town of Brunswick forever," and the borders of Commons were finally made official following an 1858 survey. Blueberry bushes were planted, logging began, and in 1934, the Brunswick Municipal Airport was built on the Commons. Today, the public area of the Commons has been reduced to 70 acres, but the old Naval Air Base is up for grabs, and slivers of land are still periodically incorporated.
People love walking in there. They're often looking around, taking note of their surroundings, because the Commons has a lot of interesting natural features. There are the standard Maine oaks, maples, and patches of pines that sometimes grow as dense as bristles on a paintbrush. But there's also peat heath in the far western corner, a bog with thick, half-decomposed organic turf of the kind beloved by archaeologists for its preservative qualities. You'll see a placard where some sturdy chestnut holdouts still survive after a ruinous blight that killed most of America's chestnut trees 100 years ago. People are interested in the Pitch Pine Barren as well. It is a grove of thick-barked pines that grow on the sandy ground in the south end of Commons. Peter Baecher, Brunswick's parks and facilities manager and town arborist, and his crew cleared out some encroaching white and red pines a few winters ago to give the rarer pitch pines room to grow.
"Pitch pine is not something people want normally in their landscape because they're gnarly, and their shape looks a little more tortured," he admitted.
"In some ways it was a very controversial choice," said Julie Isbill, who is on the Town Commons Committee. When you walk through the Barren, you really have the sense of being in a desert, or a scrubland blighted by fire. "It's a strange ecosystem," Isbill said. "Really, there are a lot of weird, funky things about Town Commons."
There was one particularly weird, funky thing that was exceptional enough for Isbill to bring up at a Town Commons Committee meeting a few years ago. While walking on the trails, she had seen signs that point to a location called "Monument E." Follow the signs, Isbill said, and they lead to more signs; follow those, and you either end up back where you started, or at a dead end. The Committee was intrigued. "So we went on a field trip to go find Monument E," she said.
The motley crew of older Brunswick residents, lured by the promise of finding the mysterious monument that apparently existed in their midst, bushwhacked headlong through a peat bog. The bog in Commons is exactly the kind in which archaeologists found the murdered 2,000-year-old Lindow man in northern Britain—who knew what body might be pickling in the mud?! They were sifting through muck and reeds when, knee-deep in peat bog, the group came upon a small patch of dry soil. All around was wilderness, but there on that dry soil stood a small stone pillar. In it was carved the letter E.
They had found Monument E, the brainchild of engineer D.E. Campbell. E was one of eleven granite markers Campbell planted around the perimeter of the 1,000-acre Commons in the year 1891. He gave each of the markers a letter, A through K. They were supposed to make Commons' borders permanent, but the wilderness grew up around them, and they disappeared and became legend.
Priscilla and Garland Davis initiated the first search for Monument E back around 1970, when people didn't pay much attention to the the Commons. The couple had read about Campbell's markers in the records at the Pejebscot Historical Society, and they contacted Boy Scout troop No. 348 and some of their fathers about the possibility of locating the monuments and reestablishing Commons' historical borders. The troop took on the project, and the search began. The Davises scoured the Pejebscot records for the coordinates of each monument, relaying the findings to the team of scouts, who carved trails between the extant monuments.
"You had to have bearings and the coordinates," said Bob Bernard, the ex-deputy fire chief of Brunswick who was among the older generation of volunteers searching for the monuments. He is now retired and wintering in Florida, "like a snow bird."
"We researched through the Pejebscot Historical Society and we looked through records of the town," said Bernard. "We started on Harpswell Road and headed west towards Mere Point Road." The crew volunteered on the weekends for six months, cutting their way through the woods with machetes, chainsaws, axes, wood saws, and shovels in order to clear out a trail between each monument. They strung up lines from poles set by each monument, using them as clearing guidelines. Once a moose got tangled on one of the lines.
"We found some moose tracks and a moose had gone into the clearing we'd been working on," said Douglas Rice, who was a boy scout on the crew at the time and still lives in Brunswick. He is Bernard's nephew. "That wasn't uncommon, you know, you get a fresh cutting and moose'll get in there and browse off of that stuff. So we were making him happy."
Of all the markers, Monument E was the hardest to find. "We had a hard time on that one," said Bernard. "We had to do a lot of cutting. There was a big to-do about the whole thing." The Brunswick Times Record covered the rediscovery of the pillar, and more than a few town council members showed up as well. The small markers were elevated to the disconcertingly grandiose status of "monument."
"It became a real historic kind of thing, trying to establish this town common area," agreed Rice.
"It's a bit of a legend," said Isbill.
There was another legendary E in the Commons 80 years ago, when the monument was still hidden in the woods. Amelia Earhart was giving aerial tours of the Maine coast in 1934, and she had landed her Ford tri-motor prop at the Brunswick Municipal Airport, built on the Commons land.
A few Brunswick residents gathered onto the one-tarmac strip and squeezed into the famous aviatrix's little plane. Eight year-old Bob Morrell of the class of '47 was aboard too, and he would later learn how to fly a plane himself, taking lessons at the Brunswick airport. From 1,000 feet in the air, the trees looked like toothpicks, the cars like black ants on chalk-line roads, and he could see the College, houses and the street where he lived. Monument E was somewhere in the thick forest below.
Just three years later, flying a plane she nicknamed Electra, Amelia Earhart vanished over the Pacific in her attempt to circumnavigate the globe. Today, there is a trail to our Monument E. But halfway around the world, somewhere in the blackest depths of the Pacific Ocean, among hydrothermal vents and bioluminescent fish, lies another monument E, waiting to be found.