The writing shack
The writing shack
Sunday was the summer solstice and it seemed made for poetry. Lupine and other wildflowers splashed color across a field sloping to the shore of Damariscotta Lake, and dozens of people traipsed a wet path to a cozy old writer's shack under a massive oak tree.

Why? Because June 21 was the dedication of Chimney Farm, the longtime home of writers Henry Beston and Elizabeth Coatsworth, as a national literary landmark. The early 1800s Nobleboro farm was the subject of Beston's book Northern Farm: A Chronicle of Maine. The farm had two old sheds that Beston had hauled by a team of oxen from near the barn to the current site, where he joined them to create a quiet, simple space to write - or perhaps to read or nap, given that the old shack was full of moldy books on a rotting mattress.

Until last fall, the shack itself was rotting, its floor punky and its frame askew after decades of neglect. Then, despite advice that the old building was beyond repair, volunteers from the Damariscotta Lake Watershed Association and Nobleboro Historical Society set to work to rebuild it, retaining as much of the old shack as possible.

All but one old window was scraped, painted, caulked. Many original boards remain, along with some new siding matching the old. The rusty metal bed was sandblasted and painted. New sills set on rocks from a nearby pile of stones have raised the building above runoff on the hillside. The work was carried out with the help of master barn and old house restorer Jim Derby of Waldoboro.

After a tour of the writing shack, some 75 people crowded into the Nobleboro Grange hall to hear speakers celebrate the rebirth of the writing shed and the landmark designation for Chimney Farm, an honor bestowed by Friends of Libraries USA. Among the speakers was poet Gary Lawless, who is also the caretaker, along with his wife Beth Leonard, of Chimney Farm.

Lawless recalled that he read some Coatsworth poems at her memorial at the farm, and then simply never left the place, which is now partially protected by conservation easement. He and Leonard operate the independent Gulf of Maine Books in Brunswick.

Also speaking was Mary Sheldon of the historical society, Don Wilding of the Henry Beston Society on Cape Cod, and Daniel Payne, at work on a biography of Beston. Lawless suggested that, in fairness, someone should write a biography of Coatsworth, too.

John Neff, retired minister and active outdoorsman, recalled boyhood visits to Chimney Farm, skinny-dips in Deep Cove and paddling the lake while the grown-ups talked. Neff's father, also a minister, had befriended Beston (born Henry Beston Sheahan) in the U.S. Navy when the senior Neff was a chaplain on the USS New York in 1917. Beston, who had already served in the ambulance corps, was writing about the Navy's role in the war for the Atlantic Monthly.

Richard Day talked about his family's houseboat on Damariscotta Lake, and the enduring friendship between Beston and Day's artist father, Jake Day. When the houseboat was too old to float, Beston let the Days haul it ashore at Chimney Farm. Beston charged rent of "one chocolate layer cake per year."
Beston was popular in town and years ago Odway and Elaine Simmons named their son Henry Beston. Henry Beston Simmons, a woodworker, of Nobleboro said Sunday's event was "awesome. I was so glad it was so well attended." Simmons said his grandfather probably hauled the two sheds downhill to make the writing shack. He joked good-naturedly with his parents, who joined him Sunday. His father wanted to name him Odway. Henry Simmons said that's an odd name and nobody knows where it came from. "But I know where my name came from."

Beston is best known for The Outermost House, a meditative account of a year he spent in a cottage on outer Cape Cod. The literary landmark tag was given to the snug Eastham cottage in 1964, but that "writing shack" was later lost in a storm. There are tentative plans to rebuild it but concerns that unless relocated, it could again be destroyed among the shifting sands of Coast Guard Beach.

Beston died in 1968. Coatsworth, who died in 1986, was a poet and author of more than 100 books, many of them for children. Both writers are buried at the farm. Their daughter Kate Barnes, who lives in Appleton, was Maine's first poet laureate. She has a sister and, in a recent surprise discovery, a brother, born from a liaison between her father and a French woman during World War I.

Someone picked wild strawberries along the path to the writing shack and shared them with other admirers of these writers who strove to live close to the land. In so doing, Beston and Coatsworth won the respect and friendship of their neighbors. Chimney Farm belonged to them, and they belonged to the local community.

Through their books, they continue to belong to a much larger group of admirers.

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