This is the sixth in a series of posts I am writing in celebration of the bicentennial of my hometown of Greenwood in Oxford County, incorporated February 2, 1816.
The most entertaining parts of a town's history are often its legends, for which the best evidence is hearsay. The historian is obliged to relate these legends as such, but also to seek out any possible corroboration. In the case of Greenwood's most famous legend, corroboration has been sought for generations with shovels and metal detectors.
Isaac Patch was the son of Timothy and Susannah (Duston) Patch, who married in Haverhill, Massachusetts, in 1777. The Patches are said to have settled in Greenwood as early as 1802, but it wasn't until Jan. 30, 1807, that Timothy received his quitclaim deed for two lots in Phillips Academy Grant.1 He would sell one of these lots to his son Duston three years later.2 Perhaps a casualty of the calamitous events of 1816, Duston Patch left the commonwealth by the summer of 1817, his land abandoned and sold off to satisfy creditors.3
Among those creditors was Isaac Patch, who acquired twenty-eight acres of his brother's land in 1818, and was deeded his father's remaining land a year later.4 Isaac had married Tryphosa Cordwell in 1814 and settled on land formerly part of the William Yates homestead. In the decades that followed, Isaac acquired more parcels on Patch Mountain and elsewhere in town, including the land upon which Greenwood City was built. The village tavern famously operated by Captain William Noyes stood on land owned by Isaac Patch, who also held the note on the building.5 Patch frequented real estate auctions, buying up land lost to the town by delinquent taxpayers.
Isaac Patch must once have been respected in town, as sons were named for him in the Beckler, Furlong and Noyes families. Addison E. Verrill, though, remembered him as a man "feared and hated by his neighbors."
He was very profane and was said to be a very hard drinker. He certainly looked so, as I remember him. I think he was thought to have become insane, at least periodically, for the children of the neighborhood were cautioned never to go near him.6
On July 10, 1846, Isaac drafted his will, in which he bequeathed to his "beloved wife Tryphosa" all their household furniture and the use and income of a third of their farm, to his daughters each a small sum, and to his son George the remainder of his estate.7 He died on Nov. 8, 1849, and was buried in Patch Mountain Cemetery, not far from his homestead. The size of his estate is not known, as no inventory appears in the file, but executor George W. Patch, with sureties Frederick Coburn, Samuel B. Locke, Josiah Small and Winthrop Stevens, provided a substantial bond of $8,000.
The Decline of the Patches
In the years following his father's death, George W. Patch kept a store at Greenwood City, married and started a family. He served as a selectman, and was for one term a state representative. As described elsewhere, he was second lieutenant of the Norway Light Infantry company at the outbreak of the Civil War, and later raised a company of infantry, of which he was captain.
But all was not well with George's finances. Since the coming of the railroad to Locke's Mills in 1851, traffic on the county road through Greenwood City had diminished. George was a land-rich, cash-poor merchant in a dying village, and by the summer of 1861 had taken on considerable debt. In September of that year, George conveyed most of his property in Greenwood—including the house and store he then occupied at Greenwood City—to his mother Tryphosa for $3,100.8 He commenced raising his infantry company in November, and early in 1862—some notes still unpaid and others coming due—he went off to war.
The Patch family was occupying the old Noyes stand in Greenwood City on May 9, 1862, when fire consumed the village. George returned to Greenwood on furlough to survey the damage, afterwards resigning his commission. The Oxford Democrat reported Captain Patch's losses as $3,000, though it was George's mother who held title to many of the destroyed buildings.9 The Patch family's fortunes would never recover. In August, four separate default judgments were entered against George, totaling nearly $1,000.10 The quitclaim deed he had given his mother offered no protection: a portion of the Patch farm and other parcels were seized. What remained of their holdings in Greenwood City would be lost to foreclosure in 1869.11 Tryphosa was able to retain her farm after a court judgment and foreclosure in 1868, but in 1875 she finally lost possession of the old Patch homestead.12
Addison E. Verrill said of George that he "was bright and talented when young, and studied to enter college, but became dissipated and very blasphemous later in life." His wife Sarah, wrote Verrill, was "worthy of a better husband."13 There is some evidence that George's decline was more than financial. In 1876 he was president of the Locke's Mills Reform Club—a chapter of the Iron Clads temperance group. That year one hundred members signed their names to the club's "iron clad pledge." Five years later, while running the hotel in Locke's Mills, George pleaded guilty to unlawfully selling intoxicating liquors, and was fined $100.14 The indictment was handed down while he was midway through his final term as a Greenwood selectman. A few months after the end of his term, 552 acres still owned by George were auctioned off by the town for his failure to pay $13.02 in taxes.15 It was around this time that George removed to Portland, where he died on Leap Day, 1896. The Portland city clerk recorded his occupation as "Retired," but the Greenwood town clerk—who for some reason returned his own copy of the death record to the state a year later—gave his occupation as "Lofer." The cause of death—"Deseased Liver & Blood Poisning"—suggests that George's "iron clad pledge" had shattered long before.
George W. Patch was laid to rest in Patch Mountain Cemetery, his grave left unmarked. It was only after he was safely in the ground that the story of his father's buried treasure spread beyond Greenwood.
The story has been told many times, but Harry M. Swift told it best. Isaac Patch had squirreled away a goodly sum of gold by the time he reached his deathbed. He was about to tell his grieving wife where the gold was buried, but only got as far as "... the northeast corner..." before losing his breath. His wife implored him to keep speaking. "The northeast corner of what?" she asked. But Patch simply muttered, "You're too damn curious," and carried his secret to the grave.16
The story goes on to suggest that a man, some fifty years later, came by with a tool for finding gold and succeeded in his search. "There is no absolute proof of the story," according to Swift, "although Agnes Peabody, wife of Oscar L. Peabody, saw a strange man hunting around the old cellar hole about that time."
That strange man may have been drawn to the Patch homestead by an article published in the Lewiston Evening Journal in the spring of 1900, and soon reprinted in papers across the country. Patch was styled a professional gambler who, "after wandering all over the face of the earth," settled in Greenwood with $100,000 in winnings.
With a large accumulation of ready money, Patch became a money lender, and one could secure any amount by giving him good security. "Uncle" Ben Bacon of West Paris remembers him, and says:—
"Yes, I remember Isaac. Wanted some money once, and went to him to get it. Patch put for the woods and in a short time he returned with the money. He went through the same operation with every one who wanted to hire money of him."
Isaac's will, the article says, left to his son George "all treasures hidden in the ground," and warned that, should any but his legal heirs try to find the gold, "he (Patch) would appear in the form of some animal and drive him away." This was confirmed by Solon Ryerson, who gave up searching for the treasure after being chased away one night by a "strange animal."
"Yes, we came near finding it. All was well until one of the most terrible looking animals imaginable appeared. We found a rock which was cut out of Patch's ledge and fitted in just as even as a stem to a pipe. It was just large enough to let a man's body down. When this creature appeared and drove us away."
"Have you never been there since?" the reporter asked.
"No, nor I never will go there either. I got all I wanted of it that night. I would not go there again for $200,000. I have got all I want trying to find his money."17
Though riddled with errors and fantastical details, the article does ground the legend in plausible behavior. Bacon's account of Isaac Patch's lending practices has the ring of truth. With no conveniently located bank (Norway Savings Bank would not be chartered until 1866), Isaac may well have decided that his surplus gold was best invested in notes of hand, and best deposited in a cache somewhere behind his home.
Isaac Patch's will made no threats of supernatural transmogrification, but Ryerson was not alone in believing that the treasure was protected by an agent beyond this world. Mabel (Morgan) Dunham was born on Patch Mountain in 1879, and as a girl sought the buried treasure with her brothers. It was Mabel's job to sit on Isaac Patch's grave to make sure his spirit didn't rise and chase them off his property—a task she never enjoyed.
Mabel's father-in-law Lemuel Dunham was skeptical. He wrote in 1896 that "the sensation in regard to finding buried treasure on Patch Mountain savors strongly of humbuggery."18 Addison E. Verrill agreed, saying that he doubted Patch had any treasure to bury, having wasted it.19
An Important Reservation
If the legend of Isaac Patch's buried treasure is untrue, it is easy to see how it might have arisen. He died a wealthy man, but his widow and son fell into financial ruin. What Verrill explained as a consequence of profligacy and dissipation, others explained with a tale of misplaced gold. Neither explanation will satisfy the historian seeking hard evidence. For that we must trace the subsequent history of the Patch homestead.
After the final foreclosure of the Patch farm, the property was sold in 1878 to Simeon A. Farr. George W. Patch had sold his interest in the farm to his mother in 1861, but was mentioned in an extraordinary easement appended to Farr's deed:
Reserving the right for George W. Patch to dig for buried treasure on said premises, and if he finds any the same shall be his property by his paying all damage he may do in digging.20
Whether Isaac Patch left buried treasure on his land or not, his son believed that he did, and thirty years after Isaac's death still held out hope of finding it. What was for his neighbors a story to be told to children and credulous reporters was for George W. Patch a last chance to redeem his legacy and restore his family's waning fortunes. That he failed makes Harry M. Swift's comic story the prelude to one of the more tragic chapters in Greenwood's history.
4Ibid., book 21, page 478. This land was sold with the buildings thereon, the deed stating that "the said Isaac is to have all my personal estate of ev[e]ry name and nature at the decease of myself and that of my wife."
17Lewiston Evening Journal, May 4, 1900. The assertions that George "at his death willed everything to his son Frank" and that Frank "lives on the same old farm that his grandfather bought" are false. I find no evidence that George left a will, or that he had at his death any land left to bequeath. The Patch farm was sold by Susie H. Woodis to Oscar L. Peabody a few weeks after the article was published. (See Oxford County, Maine (Eastern District) Deeds, book 244, page 46.) The 1900 census, taken a week after the land was sold, found George's son Frank living in Portland, as he had for the previous twenty years.