In 2003 Maine and the nation were captivated by the story of the North Pond Hermit, who lived alone in dense, boulder riddled woods near Rome, Maine northwest of Waterville. Christopher Knight survived by building a secluded and secure campsite and by stealing food and other supplies from nearby cabins and summer camps. He eluded capture for some 27 years until a determined Maine game warden and technology provided by the U.S. Border Patrol rooted out his hiding spot. Knight’s subsequent conviction resulted in jail time, restitution, a court ordered rehabilitation program and probation. His nearly 3-decade adventure spawned a book, a documentary and more recently a possible movie deal.
In 1878 a similar story, with a far less dramatic ending, unfolded along the shores of Frye Island on Sebago Lake. Mabel Knight (no relation to Christopher) recalled the incident in an interview with the Portland Press Herald in 1956. She told her interviewer, “I was only eight at the time of the wild woman scare.” Mrs. Knight, then 85, explained that only one family lived on the island in the late 19th century. It was a farm belonging to Noah Hooper. A large tract had been cleared for planting and there were many farm animals, all of which supplied the large family with food the year ‘round.
“Milk was poured in settling pans that were placed in the cool cellar until thick cream had formed.
The cream was skimmed off and churned into butter,” Knight explained. The milk, however, started disappearing with only a tiny amount remaining in the bottom of the shallow pans.
One night one of the children, peering out a bedroom window, spotted a woman climbing into a boat and rowing into the darkness toward the Raymond Neck shore. More shadowy sightings followed and more items, including clothing and vegetables, allegedly disappeared, threatening the very survival of the Hooper family over the upcoming winter.
Ultimately, residents on the Neck resolved to help. Men in old (Cumberland and Oxford) canal boats, sail boats and other available vessels surrounded the mile-and-a-half long island and began an almost hand-to-hand march toward the center, all armed with various types of farm implements. No wild woman or otherwise thieving animal was found. According to Knight, “When they realized they were unsuccessful they staged a big picnic and spent the rest of the day in racing, wrestling and other sports.” Her future husband, Charles Knight, was a young member of the search group and enjoyed telling the tale of the hunt for Frye Island’s wild woman for the rest of his years. The mysterious thievery ended on that day, but the story continued to be told for generations.
In his 1996 book, “Historical Gems of Raymond and Casco” historian Earnest Knight speculated that the loneliness and isolation of island living “…could have contributed to fantasy or hallucinations (but)…fact or fake, (it) is still a worthy legend” to pass on.
Sometimes the historical record is an amalgamation of “something happened” and folklore. Not all become the subject of books, documentaries or movies but they are the stuff of good local stories. Pass them on. <