Birthplace of Joshua L. Chamberlain,

Main Street, Brewer, ME.

During my October 1997 visit to Maine, my friend Cheryl Pula and I made a stopover in Chamberlain's hometown of Brewer, and looked for his childhood homes. We found this, his birthplace, alongside the very busy "main drag" of Brewer. It's now an antique shop!

LATEST UPDATE: Chamberlain's birthplace now has a new owner! His name is Dan Moellentin, and he moved into the house in July 2006. He is currently doing research on the various properties the Chamberlain family owned in Brewer, and is considering doing some interior restoration.

Thankfully, the house's interior is in good shape.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was born September 8, 1828, in Brewer, Maine. His given name was Lawrence Joshua, named so by his father after Captain James Lawrence, a hero of the War of 1812; the captain was best-known for his dying words: "Don't give up the ship!"

Young Lawrence (as he was known to his family and closest friends; he would change the order of his name when he attended Bowdoin College) grew up on a 100-acre farm, the oldest of five children: three brothers--Horace, John and Thomas--and one sister--Sarah, or Sae. His mother, Sarah Dupee Brastow Chamberlain, was a woman of great wit, a gentle but firm hand, and strong Christian faith. His father, Joshua, Jr., was a strict but generous man, who taught his children to think for themselves, but who never let his children forget who was boss:

"At one haying time, Lawrence was pitching hay and driving the wagon, his father gathering and raking behind...One of the front wheels got wedged between two large stumps when the wagon crossed a brook, and the back wheels sank into the sand under the load. "Clear that wheel!", the older man ordered from across the stream. "How am I going to do it?", the boy called, thinking his father could not see the entire situation..."Do it, that's how!" was the stern rejoinder".(1)

And he DID IT--with great effort, he managed to free the wheel from the stump--going so far as to startle the "off-ox" and pull everything out of the creek!

"'Do it--that's how'!"...was a maxim whose order far exceeded the occasion. It was an order for life that was worth infinitely more than years of book learning and dilatory resolution".(2)

Here's a very nice close-up look at Chamberlain's birthplace, in Brewer, ME.

Photo courtesy of Mindy Eckler.

Do not use without her express written permission.

Young Lawrence's life wasn't all hard work on the family's farm. Even though he sometimes had to work outside manual labor jobs during temporary family financial difficulties--he worked briefly in a local brickyard and at a rope-walk--it didn't take time away for fun. Sometimes he would ride a favorite mare at a rapid pace over the rocky back fields and through the forests. Or, he would play old-fashioned roundball, or go swimming.

He also came to love sailing. His family owned a sloop they called "Lapwing", and they would spend summer vacations on the Penobscot River after the haying was done. Several home-grown 'hands' crewed the boat, and Lawrence imagined it to be a 'man-of-war'. And, being the oldest, he would order about his younger siblings, Horace and John.

Hunting was, of course, a big part of life in 19th-century Maine. Even though Chamberlain was a good shot and did his share of hunting, he didn't like killing animals for mere sport. On Saturdays, after farm work was done,he would go walking in the woods (taking his gun along, to keep any prying questions at bay). During these walks, he would watch the birds and other forest creatures. He would listen carefully, and noticed the wind making particular sounds through the different-shaped leaves on the trees. He eventually learned how to identify trees by their overhead sounds.

Sometimes the local Indians camped out on his father's farm, and young Chamberlain would join them as they dwelled in their birchbark wigwams. He learned their language, and would listen to the Indians' tales of fearsome Mohawks of old, and of the awesome storm god who sat enthroned on Mount Katahdin -- the highest peak in Maine. Centuries ago, the Indians would not climb beyond Katahdin's timberline, because they believed that those who were foolhardy enough to try would never return. But Lawrence and his father once led a climbers' party up the very same mountain -- and the young man climbed to the very top, and shinnied up the tallest rock, which framed a pillar at the summit.

Religion was a very dominant part of most New England families' lives, and the Chamberlain household was no exception. With Puritan roots on the paternal side, and French Huguenot ones on the maternal side, the faith requirements in Chamberlain's family were strenuous. They worshipped at the First Congregational Church in Brewer -- where, alongside many good works and good fellowship, the rules of conduct were strict. If a member was discovered to be quarreling with neighbors without sufficient reason, or even spending time looking in on a ballroom, they could be confronted before the congregation and chastised.

At the age of sixteen, Lawrence was accepted as a member of First Congregational, after giving the required public testimony of personal religious experience. He described that experience in later life, saying that, after thoughtfully deciding he needed

"....saving grace and a loving divine brotherhood.." (2A.)

Even though this testimony was not as exciting as that of a great sinner, or, as he put it, 'sudden saint', he was formally welcomed into the church's fellowship. Even after he left Brewer for Brunswick and Bowdoin College, he remained a member of First Congregational Church until his death.

As a youth, Chamberlain briefly attended Whiting's Military and Classical School; his father intended to fit his eldest son for West Point. But his mother wanted him to study for the ministry. He didn't care to do either--but he especially didn't care to go into the army in peacetime.

"..both alike offered but little scope and freedom. They bound a man by rules and precedents and petty despotisms, and swamped his personality."(3)

In the end, he conceded to his mother's wishes--but only if he could serve as a missionary overseas. In 1846, he decided to attend Bowdoin College in Brunswick. But Bowdoin's entrance requirements were strict, and he knew no Greek and little Latin. So, he fitted out a room for study at one end of his parents' attic, and tacked up a daily schedule to the bookcase door. There, he learned Latin from William Hyde, a Bowdoin man who taught at Whiting's--and memorized Kuhner's unabridged Greek grammar, with the aid of a tutor from Bangor. This went on for nine months.

This is Chamberlain's boyhood home in Brewer, showing the attic where he built the solitary room, and studied Greek and Latin, in order to be admitted as a Bowdoin College student. (The house is now in private hands.)

Photo taken by Cheryl Pula.

It was quite exciting to be standing outside Chamberlain's childhood home. The farm itself is long-gone--a neighborhood's grown up around the place. I hoped the current residents didn't think Cheryl and I were nuts, taking all those pictures!

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