Dennis Fairbanks
“THE prominent man of upper Aroostook”
Dena L. Winslow, Ph.D.
Copyright 2020 – All Rights Reserved

No other person can compare to Dennis Fairbanks for being a well-known “character.”  As a legendary figure, Dennis was the most influential individual of early Aroostook County.  Virtually everyone who came to what would become Aroostook County met and knew Dennis.  Very often, he was their host and tour guide as well, especially for the various government officials (from both sides of the border) who came through on business or for military purposes during the Aroostook War period.  In this way, he came to know about, and was often involved with everything that was going on.  Not only was he well versed in what was happening on the Maine side of the border, but he was equally well versed on what was happening on the New Brunswick side of the border.

Dennis was the first settler of Presque Isle (ironically called “Letter F” at the time of his arrival), clearing land for a mill in 1828 (although he was not the first settler of Maysville, the north half of the present-day double township of Presque Isle.  That honor goes to Peter Bull, who was Dennis’s rival and bitter enemy, as well as his good friend – depending upon the circumstances at the time.  Peter had arrived in 1822). 

According to Sidney Cook, writing in 1902, when Dennis first arrived in Aroostook County, he found that the best spot for a mill at the mouth of the Presque Isle Stream had been already taken up by Peter Bull.  Dennis tried to buy Peter out but Peter refused to sell.  Dennis then moved upstream and built a dam that negatively impacted the water flowing to Peter’s mill.  “Thus began a bitter struggle to get the mastery by inducing newcomers to settle above the two mills, thereby locating the coming village (of Presque Isle).  Fairbanks possessed a belligerent disposition, and not only welcomed a contest, but gloried in it.”  It is for this reason, according to earlier historians, that the village of Presque Isle was located where it is today, rather than at the mouth of the Presque Isle Stream where Peter Bull had located, and where Dennis wanted to build his new town.  Peter’s mill ultimately failed as a result of many issues, including the impacts Dennis’s mill had on water levels needed to operate the mill.  Peter moved upriver to Mapleton after his mill failed. 

In spite of their bitter rivalry, Dennis assisted Peter when, just as the Aroostook War was about to begin, on February 11, 1839, the Posse under Sheriff Strickland came down the Aroostook River (which was the highway at that time during the winter) from Masardis and reached Presque Isle.  There they were met by between ten and sixteen armed men standing across the river blocking their way so that two of their fellow lumbermen from New Brunswick could escape the posse and avoid being arrested for timber theft.  Sheriff Strickland rode his horse through the line of men in an effort to capture the escaping men.  As he did so, one of the men in the line fired at Strickland and injured his horse (which only received a minor flesh wound and did not die). 

Sheriff Strickland and the posse captured the escaping men, and arrested the other men on the ice.  It was this incident and the hostilities surrounding it which ultimately sparked the State of Maine to declare war against England and the Aroostook War got under way.  After the arrests and the subsequent capture of the Land Agent by the New Brunswick lumbermen, Strickland set off on his infamous ride to Augusta that later became the subject of many songs and verses of the day.  This ride, although far less known in history, has been compared by some historians to the famous ride of Paul Revere.  Strickland stopped only to change horses as he raced toward Augusta following these fateful events.

On the ice of the Aroostook River that February day, the posse arrested the lumbermen and some were ultimately released while five of them were taken to Bangor to jail and their horse teams were confiscated.  Peter Bull was one of the individuals who was arrested on the ice for timber theft.  Dennis Fairbanks (who was neither a member of the posse nor a member of the group of lumbermen blocking the river) and Ebenezer Webster (who had arrived with the posse) posted bail for Peter, but not for any of the other men. 

Before the Aroostook War began, Charles Jackson, the State of Maine Geologist visited the area in the fall of 1837.  He wrote:  “On Monday morning, 23rd October, we entered Presq Isle river, and ascended that stream to the farm of Mr. Dennis Fairbanks, who had sent me an invitation to call upon him.  His dwelling is a mile and a half up this stream, and he has there established saw and flour mills.  On reaching his establishment, we were very cordially received, and our time was spent in exploring the resources of the country around.

Mr. Fairbanks has dwelt there 9 years, and has brought his estate into a good state of cultivation.  He pursues almost every branch of trade required in a new settlement, makes his own agricultural tools, machinery, and even his boots and shoes, showing unusual dexterity in these various occupations.

His mills are three stories high on one side, and two on the other, and the building is handsomely shingled and painted.  In his building is an excellent flour mill, and it is kept in continual operation.  A part of the building serves also as a carpenter’s shop, where Mr. Fairbanks carries on the work according to his need.  He has also a saw mill, and saws boards, which are sent to the boundary line for sale.

After examining his manufacturing establishments, I visited the fields where he had lately reaped a most abundant harvest.  The wheat stubble was extremely crowded, and of so large size, that from curiosity I was disposed to split open one of the straws and measure it, when I found that it was one and a third inches in circumference.  Indeed, I never saw more convincing proof of the fertility of the soil.  When I had collected all the specimens of soil that I wished for analysis, I was desired to enter the two large barns belonging to this gentleman.  His crop had been so luxuriant that he had been obligated to put up a new building to contain it, and both the barns were found to be crowded from the floors to the ridgepoles with sheaves of wheat, rye and oats; there being, as was estimated, no less than 800 or 1000 bushels of grain, garnered in; and all this was obtained from less than 30 acres of land!”  Jackson went on to describe other extraordinary crops of vegetables that Dennis had been growing on his land.

Dennis was following in his family’s footsteps when he decided to come to Presque Isle and establish a town – which he planned to name “Fairbanks” after himself.  And, for a time, that was indeed the name of present-day Presque Isle.  His father, Captain Benjamin, did well in his new home in Winthrop and had the largest orchard in the town, as well as being a person who loaned money at interest.  He was also known to have a lot of mechanical skills, apparently a family trait as Dennis was also mechanically skilled.  A prominent man in the community, Captain Benjamin served many public offices and was reported to be a man of, “upright character, benevolent and helpful to all in need or in trouble.”

Dennis had an older brother, Col. Joseph Fairbanks who left home to settle along the Sandy River in 1792.  In 1808 Col. Joseph had built mills and the little town of Fairbanks was named in his honor.  Besides farming and milling, Col. Joseph was also a merchant who carried on a mercantile business, as well as buying and selling large amounts of livestock.  He planted the first orchard in his settlement.  Like his father and youngest brother Dennis, Col. Joseph had a lot of energy and enterprise, and was very much involved in public affairs.  He supported educational movements and religious movements in the area.  He held various military and town offices and commanded the first Regiment in the War of 1812.  In 1819 he represented the town at the General Court of Massachusetts (of which Maine was then a part), and afterwards served as a state senator when Maine became a state in 1820.

As the youngest child of a prominent family, Dennis had some strong role models, and it is clear he tried to emulate his father and brother with his own life when he came to Aroostook County to establish the town of Fairbanks (now Presque Isle).  Like his family before him, Dennis was an active and energetic citizen of the new community he developed.   

Dennis was actively involved in government and served one term as a Legislator from Aroostook County in 1843.  He also served as a Justice of the Peace.  He ran a mercantile store from his lumber mill and was known to be very generous at times with individuals who were in need.  He built and ran a lumber mill and a grist mill serving the area.  The Aroostook War was a major boon to his business interests and he provided lumber, rations, accommodations, supplies, and much more to the troops when they were here. 

In 1844 the first school in Presque Isle was held in his grist mill and was taught by Alice Wheeler, who was the daughter of Mr. Wheeler the mill operator at that time.   Town meetings and voting also took place in his mill in some years.

Dennis and his wife Hannah with their six children first lived briefly in part of the sawmill Dennis built in what is today Presque Isle, along the banks of the Presque Isle Stream located on the north side of where the State Street bridge crosses the river today. 

After building the first bridge across the Presque Isle Stream, in the same place as the bridge is located today, Dennis built a home not far from the mills. 

When the Bangor Rifle Corps arrived with the troops for the Aroostook War on March 17, 1839, according to Geraldine Tidd Scott, they were so surprised to see a three story house greeting them that they gave three “rousing cheers,” for the owner of the house, Dennis Fairbanks.  They deemed Dennis to be, “a true specimen of a Yankee, rough in appearance, but a true man clear through.”

Dennis also later built a two-story hotel, then known as a “tavern,” in 1843 which was built near his mills.  This hotel was purchased by Sumner Whitney in 1846 after Dennis had left the area and he and Hannah were divorced.  The hotel became known as the “Sumner Whitney House” and was destroyed in a fire many years later.  Dennis’s mills were burned in a fire in the winter of 1863, but he no longer owned them or lived in the area at that time.

As much as Dennis was civic minded and could be extremely generous, he also had a well-known violent streak.  As Dale Steinhaur said of Dennis in 1984, “for the early citizens of Presque Isle, Dennis Fairbanks appears to have been ‘the skeleton in the cupboard.’”

In fact, it was Dennis’s sometimes violent temper that gave Caribou one of their early leading citizens, Washington Vaughan.  Dennis and Washington had been partners in building the mills in Presque Isle, but, according to Sidney Cook, writing in 1902, Dennis wanted to be rid of his partner after the mills were built.  He “engaged Vaughan in a dispute,” which lead to Dennis taking a piece of lumber and hitting Washington over the head with it.  Washington’s head was laid open from the blow which nearly killed him, and disabled him for a long period of time.  He carried the scar from the assault for the rest of his life.  At that point, he moved on to Caribou and split up his partnership with Dennis.

In describing Dennis in 1909, W. T. Ashby wrote, “Fairbanks was educated, suave, smiling, handsome, and diplomatic; that was one side of him.  He was also, when he chose to be, stubborn, revengeful, tantalizing, aggressive and treacherous….”

Ashby went on to say that “Dennis Fairbanks was a businessman and a scholar, and was prospering beyond his expectations, and had it not been for his hasty temper and his love of women, the town of Presque Isle would have today been called Fairbanks, and he might have lived and died a respectable citizen, while his remains might have reposed in American soil, under the Stars and Stripes in the town which he founded… instead, he died poor in another country, …while his resting place is unmarked and almost unknown.”

In 1846 when Dennis was fifty-six years old, he got his sixteen year old housekeeper, Abigail Bradley, pregnant.  On May 15, 1846 he arranged for a lawyer in Fort Fairfield named John Trafton, to sell very nearly all of his property with the exception of a horse, a single-horse wagon and harness, a single sleigh and harness, a saddle and bridle. 

Dennis and Abigail and their baby moved to a hotel he either built or purchased located about where the border crossing is now located between Fort Fairfield and New Brunswick.  The structure was built so that half of it was on each side of the border.  Dennis operated it as a hotel or tavern for several years.  He continued to vote in elections in Presque Isle through 1847.  Dennis claimed in March or April of 1847 that he had married Abigail in Canada, although his divorce from Hannah was still pending at the time. 

On March 10, 1846, Dennis’s wife Hannah had filed for divorce.  Divorce was very unusual in that time period, however Hannah was granted her divorce in July of 1847 and the court gave it an effective date of May 14, 1846, the day before Dennis transferred his property to his lawyer Mr. Trafton. 

In the divorce Hannah said that, “…Dennis, neglecting his marriage vows and duty since said marriage, on or about the fifteenth day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand, eight hundred and thirty-two, and in divers other days and time between said fifteenth day of September, and the present time has been guilty of extreme cruelty toward your said libellant – and he has repeatedly struck and knocked her down with his fists – has beaten her in the face – has kicked and choked her, so that your libellant has been seriously injured by reason of said blows and kicks; that she has been confined to her bed more than once on account of the violence and injuries inflicted upon her by said Dennis; that she is afraid to live with said Dennis – that he has frequently within the last year, threatened to kill her – and your said libellant firmly believes, that if compelled to live with said Dennis, she has no security for life or limb…  Wherefore, your libellant prays that for reason of extreme cruelty and abuse, a divorce… be granted her from said Dennis…”

In the divorce proceedings there were witnesses who testified about Dennis and Hannah.  Holmes Daggett of Houlton as Deputy Sheriff in March or April of 1847 testified that he had a conversation with Dennis in Presque Isle and that Dennis said “he should never live again with his wife meaning said Hannah – that he had married “Abigal” meaning as I understood one Abigail Bradley – he further stated that she was then boarding at the house of one Fitzherbert on the British side of the line…”  Daggett said Dennis invited him to go to Fitzherbert’s which he did and said he saw Abigail there with a child which she told him was Dennis’s.  Dennis, who was also there, said it was his child and said that he and Abigail were married on the British side of the line.  Daggett also said, “…the general reputation of said Fairbanks is that of a quarrelsome and violent man, that in my opinion it would not be safe for his wife meaning said Hannah to live with him.”

Hannah’s daughter, also named Hannah, provided a sworn statement dated June 21, 1847 in the divorce proceedings.  She described, “…fourteen years since {1833} my Father beat my mother in brutal manner – choked her and put his knees on her stomach which disabled her for a number of days – seven years since {1840} I saw said Fairbanks cuff said Hannah and throw her on the floor which caused the blood … to run from her nose and ears and that same time said he would kill her, he put her in an upper room and kept her there for a week and her food was took to her during that time and since the above time I have seen Dennis cuff choke and strike said Hannah with such power that there were marks left on her person that could be seen for two or three days.”

There were other witnesses too, including Malachi Doyle, Sheriff of Aroostook County, who provided testimony about Dennis’s abuse of Hannah, and added, “I can and do state further that said Fairbanks character and general reputation is that of a violent and abusive man.”

There is no evidence that Dennis fought the divorce.  And, in fact, he didn’t appear at the hearing to contest it.

Hannah had asked the judge not only to grant her a divorce, but to also restore the property Dennis had transferred to others back to her because she said the money to acquire it had come from her inheritance when her father died.  The court did that and ultimately Hannah was able to re-sell the property and provided an income for herself and her children.  She moved to Wisconsin a few years later to live with one of her sons.  Later, she returned to Presque Isle and lived with Columbus Hayford on the Caribou Road until she died on January 19, 1876.

Dennis and Abigail moved to a farm in Artherette, New Brunswick after a few years on the border.  They had eight children, making, with Dennis’s six children with Hannah, a total of fourteen children for Dennis.

Dennis died November 3, 1867 in New Brunswick.  His obituary printed on November 8, 1867 in the Loyal Sunrise had this to say about him:

“Death of Dennis Fairbanks, Esq.  We learn that this gentleman, who was well known in this county, died at his residence in the Province of New Brunswick, about twenty miles up the Tobique River on Tuesday last.  Mr. Fairbanks was a native of Winthrop, and removed to this place about thirty-five years ago.  He was the owner of a mile square of land upon which is now Presque Isle village.  He was the first settler of this town, and came here when all the country around, was an unbroken forest, built mills, engaged in trade and farming, and for many years was THE prominent man of upper Aroostook.  He built the house which is now the residence of the Hon. Sumner Whitney.  He was at one time a member of the legislature, when Houlton and all the County above had but one member of the House.  About twenty years since, on account of difficulties in which he was involved, he left and went into the Province, where he has since resided, and for the last twelve years we are told he has not been in this place.  He was a man of great energy of character, of indomitable perseverance, some what eccentric, and probably wanting in that prudence and sagacity essential to long continued prosperity.  He was about eighty years.”

There are no markers on Dennis’s grave, which is said to be along the banks of the Tobique River in Artherette.  No one can be located today who knows where it is.  Hannah is most likely buried in her son’s family plot at Johnson Cemetery in Presque Isle, although there are no markers for her.  Abigail moved to Clare, Michigan and remarried twice after Dennis died.  She is buried in the Cherry Grove Cemetery in Clare.

There are no known photographs of Dennis or Hannah, if any were ever taken of them.  However, Dennis’s (and Hannah’s) influence and importance to early Aroostook County was tremendous, and can still be seen in the County today.  For example, he laid out many of the major streets in Presque Isle village as they still are currently arranged, and he built the first bridge across the Presque Isle stream – in the same location as the current bridge is now located on present day State Street.  His mills furnished food and lumber for the builders of early Aroostook and supplied the troops during the Aroostook War.  Although the town does not carry his name, it certainly carries the huge influences this “skeleton in Aroostook’s closet” had on the area.