Reprinted from the August 2011 issue of the Northwoods Sporting Journal
A century or so ago, Maine’s landscape was heavily dotted with countryside farms. Settlers acquired land and worked hard to clear much of it with hand and horses, making way for their farms. The rural farm lifestyle was a profitable one in those days, and people weren’t afraid to work hard for the harvest they produced and sold. Rural towns sprung up throughout much of the state, as they did in the other New England states, and there was much activity in these places.
While folks worked hard, there was also time for play, and the bustling rural farming communities boasted their fair share of hunters and anglers. Visitors also came in the season, and the woods and fields were alive with sport.
One such farming town in coastal Maine became the setting for numerous fictional short stories of fishing, shooting and farming, penned by famous writer Ben Ames Williams. The town was Searsmont, Maine, and it was called Fraternity Village in Williams’ stories.
Ben Ames Williams first came to Searsmont, or Fraternity, in 1918, the year before his first of more than 35 novels were published. Williams was 29 years old at the time, a young aspiring novelist with a passion for the outdoors, and perhaps the need for a friend and mentor.
Williams had come to Searsmont with a friend to fish, and this is where he met A.L. “Bert” McCorrison, and a long time friendship was forged. Bert was a farmer from Searsmont, on what he referred to as “Hardscrabble Farm”, where he’d lived his entire life. He was an overly generous, kind man with a sincere love for the outdoors and a unique appreciation for their beauty.
While Ben Williams wrote numerous stories and books set in Fraternity, they wouldn’t have been written if it weren’t for Bert McCorrison. Ben and Bert began fishing and hunting together, and Bert’s knowledge and teachings were the inspiration for the stories. Bert is included in many of the stories under the name Chet McAusland. Ben visited Searsmont often, and he and Bert kept in touch with letters throughout the years. Williams later wrote that the most important event in his professional life occurred when he met Bert that summer day in 1918 at Hardscrabble Farm.
The stories of Fraternity were a huge hit, and gained vast nationwide popularity. Everyone wanted to hear about this little farm town in Maine, its various characters and their hunting, fishing and farming adventures. The first Fraternity story was written in 1919, and in all, about 125 others were written until 1940. About 100 of these were printed, most appearing in the Saturday Evening Post. Other destinations for the stories were Collier’s, Country Gentleman, and The National Weekly. Several novels set in Fraternity were also published.
The Fraternity stories are not just hunting, fishing or farming stories, which I soon found out after reading several of them. While these activities provided some background in which the stories were framed, their real focus is local characters, local color and the sense of place that Fraternity was. The stories capture a time in history that is gone forever, and that’s what really kept me reading.
While most of the Fraternity stories are fiction, they were based on a real truth, and accurately describe the way places like Searsmont were changing over the years, during times that few people are still alive to remember. And some of the stories span back even farther, to times when the men of Fraternity were in their childhood days and they recounted tales from their parents and grandparents.
The changes in Searsmont as described in the Fraternity stories were common to most rural places in the Northeast. Farms were going away. The cost of living was climbing, while farm products like hay, grain, corn and apples were worth less every year. The old farmers were passing on and their children were moving to the cities to find work. Even in the 1920’s, men who grew up in these places were noticing fields rapidly returning to forest, with only fieldstone walls and old cellar holes in the woods to prove that these once were productive farms.
The changing landscape chronicled in the Fraternity stories continues today. Many farms continue to revert to forest, and few people live off the land. With the reverting farms, deer numbers have declined, but moose are thriving. Hunting patterns have changed. Fox are now valued little for their fur, coyotes have moved in, and the old tradition of fox hunting with hounds has all but gone away. Fewer people hunt with dogs altogether. The tradition of fishing remains, but the species we fish for have often changed. It’s interesting to see how Williams and the residents of places like Fraternity recognized the changing times they lived in just as acutely as we recognize changes in our traditions and lifestyle today.
Unless you have quite the collection of old magazines, it would be difficult to find all of the Fraternity stories today. Fortunately, Ben Ames Williams published the book “Fraternity Village” in 1949, which is a collection of 16 of the Fraternity stories. Still, unless enough interest is garnered, most of the stories are unlikely to ever again be published.
Another unique aspect to the Fraternity stories comes from their source of inspiration, Bert McCorrison. Bert and Ben hunted and fished together during Williams’ visits for many years, and continued to communicate through letters year-round. In fact, they were such close friends that when Bert passed away in 1931, he willed Hardscabble Farm to Ben. Bert was an incredibly observant man with a photographic memory, and a skilled writer to boot. His letters provide a view into life in 1920’s Searsmont, and are an important piece of Maine’s history. Williams cherished the letters he had received from Bert, and after Bert’s passing, he compiled the letters in book form and published them under the title “Letters from Fraternity”.
You can find copies of “Fraternity Village” and “Letters from Fraternity” at online bookstores like Amazon.com (see below), or in local used bookstores. If your local library doesn’t have copies of the books, you can also request to borrow them from other libraries via Interlibrary Loan.