Freeport’s “Study House”

Photographer John G. Kelley’s collection of 27 black and white images in A Window Through Time is more than an art book. In this still-life study of the historic saltwater farm house on Freeport’s Harraseeket River where Millie Pettengill lived until 1975, the work, life and imaginations of Pettengill Farm’s 165 years of habitation are steeped into its walls and wainscoting. As Maine State Historian Earle Shettleworth, Jr. asks in his accompanying essay, “what if these walls could talk?”

In many cases, the walls of the old saltbox do talk, in the inscribed “graffiti” – drawings and words etched into the plaster walls. Covered by as many as 14 layers of wallpaper, the etchings were protected from daily wear and vandalism for decades. In one photo, a ship’s bowsprit and foresails seem to surge from a wave, with fully detailed rigging; the ship Java sails on a sea populated with real or imagined sea creatures.

The Freeport Historical Society keeps this original building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, as a “study house” – a place to examine the layers of history. In Kelley’s photographs, we see evidence of the close ties that New England’s farmers had to the land and sea: hand-split laths revealed through holes in the horsehair plaster. In “The Eel Rake,” the tines of the rusted tool speak of an intense closeness of inhabitants to their habitat. “You get a clear feeling of what it meant to live in New England 100 and 200 years ago – how deeply rooted daily existence was in the land and sea, and the work and perseverance it took to get by,” says Freeport Historical Society’s director Randall Thomas.

Kelley’s rich photography and Shettleworth’s essay in A Window Through Time offer a handsome piece for photographers, historians and anyone curious about life in coastal life in the last century.

Freeport Historical Society opens the doors of Pettengill Farm to the public at Pettengill Farm Day on Oct. 2, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (rain date Oct. 9). Photographer John G. Kelley will be on hand. A matching interpretive exhibit featuring rare photographs taken on the farm by Mildred Pettengill ca. 1919 depicting farm life through the seasons will also be at the farm that day. John Kelley’s photographs and the exhibit will be shown at historical society headquarters in Freeport through Dec. 31.