In “A Morning View of Blue Hill Village,” painted in 1824 by the town’s first minister and Renaissance man Jonathan Fisher, there is barely any water visible–just a tiny patch of the bay on the left-hand side.
The primary focus of the image–which can be viewed on Maine Memory Network (item #19161)–is the hill. The viewer hovers above it, looking south-east down into the valley of the village and then back up the other side where Fisher’s house crests in the distance. While there are three people and a horse standing atop the hill, most of the activity of the painting is clustered in the middle, in the valley. Tiny yellow and white houses trace a rough line up the hill. Here and there, stands of trees punctuate the view.
It is a bucolic, pastoral scene going on two centuries old of a small Maine town that still regularly evokes those adjectives. Of course the ocean is right there, but it’s only an inlet. The town is tucked back away from the open sea. And the coziness of the Main Street–the way you dip into it and back out again–feels as warm and inviting a pocket.
Into such a setting many fascinating people have settled, not the least of which is Fisher himself. I learned just how fascinating he was on Wednesday, the day of the Blue Hill team’s second MCHP meeting. Prior to the meeting, team member Caroline Werth, who volunteers her time at the Fisher House Museum, offered to give me a tour of the building. (Brad Emerson, also on the team, as well as three other volunteers, offered their expertise as well.) In addition to roaming around the charming nooks and crannies of an early 19th-century house, I witnessed endless examples of Fisher’s creativity and skill.
Drawing and painting landscapes and portraits (three of himself at various ages–note the increasing wrinkles) were the tip of the iceberg. Harvard educated, Fisher also carved finely detailed woodblocks of animals to make prints, kept lovingly illustrated journals full of life details and observations of the natural world, made furniture of stunning precision and beauty, built clocks and surveying tools and his own camera obscura, tended a thriving orchard, bound his own books, made buttons and hats, and, not least, read and wrote extensively. Many of his poems, essays, and sermons survive, in addition to the journals. As the town’s first man of the cloth, he even helped found Bangor Theological Seminary.
In the midst of all this, Fisher fathered nine children. That big fact reminds us that beneath the surface of every rich and compelling story, there is a back story aching to be told. Or, in this case, literally an aching back. Who was the wife who took care of the children and house so that her husband could achieve his potential? What were her interests, dreams, and ideas about the world? While not much information survives about Mrs. Fisher–especially not in the writings of Fisher himself–you can bet he was able to do what he did because she was working just as hard at at least as much.
In certain ways, this story of a Renaissance man and how he was able to do what he did in this tiny town represents the larger story of Blue Hill. Today, Blue Hill is known worldwide for its transplanted big city artists and renowned musical assets like Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival and the Bagaduce Music Lending Library. But it is also a place that grew on the backs of fisherman, shipbuilders, workers in the tourism industry, and others whose families have lived in the area for generations, long before the rusticators came north. These diverse groups still co-exist in Blue Hill and the town would not be what it is without any one of them.
And so, that’s the vantage point from where the Blue Hill team members stand–up there on the hill looking at the town as it winds its way through history. “Who are we–we who call ourselves residents of Blue Hill?” and “How did we come to where we are today?” are two of their guiding questions. They are eager to unearth the answers–not only for themselves, but for the students at four area schools that will participate in the project.
Together, they are likely to offer up a virtual landscape just as rich and colorful as Reverand Fisher’s painted version–but one that, perhaps, reveals as much behind-the-scenes as it does on the surface.