Pity The Pinder

photographs and text by Tony Oppersdorff

This circular pound on Rte. 126 in Jefferson was constructed in 1829.

Joy go with him who attempts to impound an estray, for with such an attempt comes a swarm of vexations,petty yet powerful as the wasps and hornets of Canaan.
— Samuel Watson, Anomalies of Fence Law, 1877

Have you ever wondered about those Neolithic-like livestock pounds scattered about the Maine landscape? Have you ever walked into one and closed your eyes and imagined what they would have looked, sounded and smelled like when filled with hungry cows bawling to be milked or fed, or a testy bull determined to crush you against the wall? Or, for that matter, an angry owner accompanied by several large sons determined to retrieve their property without paying a fine?

By the mid-18th century there were enough farms in Maine for neighbors to be concerned about other people’s livestock getting loose and wandering into their gardens and cornfields where the damage could threaten a family’s survival. In the early days the solution was simple: bring the animal back or feed it and wait for it to be claimed. After all, neighbors could hardly afford to do otherwise. But attitudes changed as farm crowded against farm. It became more difficult to tolerate repeat offenders, or determine fair compensation for damages, or know whose bull had impregnated whose cow, or agree on reparations after a drove of 250-pound Yorkshire pigs tore up an orchard, or goats devoured potato plants — all serious matters when nearly every family grew its own food and was responsible for its own well-being.

One of the earliest of Maine’s hundred or so stone pounds was in Harpswell, completed in 1793; very little of the original structure remains. Some, like the one built in Waldoboro in 1819, were rectangular. Others, like one built in Jefferson in 1829, were round. Regardless of the shape, they generally enclosed between 1200 and 1600 square feet, had stout, seven-foot high walls, and massive gates that opened beneath large granite lintels. These small fortresses were intended not only to control the egress of animals, but the ingress of angry owners intent on retrieving their livestock from the town-appointed “pinder” whose services were compensated for by the fines he collected. For that he had to find and capture the stray, lead it to the pound, and finally care for the animal to the owner’s satisfaction. Actual payment was never assured, even with persuasion. And if the pinder left his impounded animal unguarded while in search of another stray, there was every reason for the owner to quietly remove his property — hence the massive walls and locked gate. It was in the pinder’s interest to sleep lightly; perhaps it was for this reason that the town fathers often gave this job to the youngest newlywed in the community — or anyone else whose need for money exceeded his ability to avoid this responsibility.

According to William N. Locke, Ph.D., author of “The Rise and Demise of the Cattle Pound,” the simultaneous increase in population and sense of civic responsibility diminished the need for pounds: with more farms came more walls and fences, and fewer strays. Also, by around 1825, fewer towns were being incorporated, marginal farms began to be abandoned, and many young men left for less rocky pastures, or succumbed to the lure of the city. Farms that thrived were the best and most established; animal containment was less of an issue. The final blow occurred with the introduction of cheap, barbed wire in the 1870s. The pound in the Baker Forest Preserve, built around 1900, may have been one of the last ones constructed.

Like old stonewalls running through woods of oak and maple, the empty pounds remain as testimony to the back-wrenching effort and remarkable skill required to farm this land. Today, despite human visitors, these forsaken structures provide some protection to plants. Among the most common is the ubiquitous partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) a forest groundcover favored by deer and grouse, and formerly used by Native American women to ease childbirth.

Waldoboro’s pound, built in 1819, is square. Cars pass by on Main St. (Rte. 220) where horse-and-wagons once rumbled along at a much slower pace.

“Pity the Pinder” is taken from Best Nature Sites: Midcoast Maine, a collaboration between writer and photographer Tony Oppersdorff and writer and editor Kyril Schabert.