Women's History Trail Banner
Home Button
Mt. Vernon Avenue - Bond Brook
Returning to State Street, walk a short distance up Mt. Vernon Avenue to where a bridge spans Bond Brook. State Street turns into Mt. Vernon Avenue at the base of the hill. From the bridge, look to the left and up the stream. Today there is a construction business complex. This is approximately the site of John Jones's sawmill, where Martha Ballard and her family lived from 1778 to 1791.

Dame Martha Moore Ballard is arguably Augusta's most well-known citizen, particularly in Women's Studies circles. She was a midwife and healer, as well as a mother, wife, and community member who lived in this area from 1777 until her death in 1812. Books have been written about her life, a movie made from the book, and Martha's own diary, carefully written over 27 years, has been painstakingly deciphered. Martha is often thought of as being "from Hallowell" and indeed it was Ancient Hallowell, the portion that became the city of Augusta, where Martha lived. The exact location of her home is not yet documented, but historian Charles Nash noted she lived on the "lower mill site" on Bond Brook. Martha came to Maine in 1777 to join her husband, Ephraim, a surveyor for the Kennebec Proprietors. After spending a year at the "Hook" (present-day Hallowell), the family moved to Jones's mill on Bond Brook where they lived from December 1778 to December 1791. The family then moved to a dwelling owned by the Howard family, on what is present-day lower State Street, near the Hallowell/Augusta line. After renting the Howard place for 8 years (December 1791 to December 1799), Martha and the family that remained at home moved to Cushnoc Heights - a ridge high on Sand Hill. This move put Martha quite some distance from town, and in terrain that was, at best, difficult for an older woman to navigate. Cushnoc Heights rises dramatically from the riverbank and the settled area of the town. Martha's son Jonathan owned the land and house where Martha lived out the remainder of her life, sometimes having to share the house with Jonathan and his family. The location is approximately where the Cushnoc Credit Union now stands, at the corner of Northern Avenue and Old Belgrade Road.

From 1785 to 1812, Martha faithfully kept a diary. She recorded her business transactions - her healing and her midwifery - along with comments about the daily comings and goings of her family and those around her. Occasionally, there are comments on the larger community. Her diary is a rare view of late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century life in Maine. Only recently has Martha's life "come alive" for us through the work of two women: historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, author of A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 - 1812, and writer/producer Laurie Kahn-Leavitt, writer and producer for the film based on the book. Although fame is recent for Martha, her diary held an official status from the beginning. Entries in nineteenth century vital statistics records for Augusta carry notations of "B.D." in reference to many births. This does not mean "born dead," as one might think, but rather denotes "Ballard Diary" as the official record of the birth.

Martha's diary reveals names of many Augusta women and their activities -- names and deeds that might otherwise have remained hidden in obscure town records, if ever recorded at all. Martha was a healer, herbalist, and midwife. She delivered nearly 1000 babies over her career and cared for uncounted numbers of patients. Many had their names recorded in her diary, but many likely did not when the "care" was a brief bit of advice in daily passing. Martha practiced what some historians call social medicine - care that is given within the context of the community and not in professional and distinctly separate settings as it is today. Women attended at childbirth, nursed the ill until recovery or death, then prepared the bodies for the grave. In addition to sharing the responsibilities of care with women, Martha depended upon other women for many of her household tasks, thereby freeing her time for her practice. Martha's daughters Hannah and Dolly and her nieces Parthenia and Polly Barton were the family women who helped in Martha's household when the diary opens (a daughter Lucy was already married), although other women were constantly coming and going in a complex pattern of bartering, trading, and assisting each other in task of daily life on the Maine frontier. Tasks included washing, cleaning, making household items such as soap and candles, preparing and preserving foodstuff, gardening, caring for animals, and producing cloth. Cloth production was the most complex task and required many skills: growing or raising the fiber source (flax or sheep), preparing the raw fiber, spinning the thread, setting the loom, weaving the cloth (a multitude of patterns and weights), then finishing the cloth, all before it could be made into an item to use or wear. Among the women named as helpers in Martha Ballard's household were Polly Savage, Sarah Neal, Betsy Barton, Jane Welch (presumably the same widow Jane Welch helped by the town in 1792), Hannah Cool, Sally Pierce (who later married son Jonathan) and Beulah Prince - to name only a few. Beulah was a free black who lived in Augusta and helped Martha over many years. In 1820, the first year for which there are clear statistics regarding the ethnic make-up of Maine residents, there were 101 free black women living in Kennebec county. While living on Cushnoc Heights, Martha befriended a young Indian woman named Elizabeth, one of few who remained in the area. According to some historians, by the 1770's fewer than 1,000 American Indians lived in Maine. Elizabeth appeared only briefly in Martha's diary. Martha frequented the store at Fort Western and attended the Howard family in illness. Without doubt, she walked the ground under the streets that people walk today: Water, Bond, Cony, Mt. Vernon, Northern, Oak, Winthrop and all the surrounding area. She assisted women in childbirth as far away as Cobbossee Great Pond and Winslow, where daughter Lucy lived. She crossed the river by canoe, by bridge, and by foot on the ice. Martha's diary is the most extensive record of daily life in eighteenth-century Maine - a rare gift to the citizens of Augusta. She died in 1812 at the house on the ridge. Her gravesite is unknown.

 

Site 35.1 Sources:

 

Douin, Anthony. Introduction to “Civil War Nurses,” lecture by Linda Sudlow, 21 March 2001, Kennebec Historical Society Lecture Series, Lithgow Library, Augusta, Maine.

 

McBride, Bunny. Women of the Dawn. London and Lincoln, NA: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

 

Nash, Charles Elverton. The History of Augusta: First Settlements and Early Days as A Town. Augusta, ME: Charles E. Nash & Son, 1904.

 

Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785 - 1812. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990; Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, 1991 (paperback).

 

 

 

The University of Maine