The true story behind zinc-lined grain bins

NOT long ago a lovely home o'erlooking the bounding sea, with many bedrooms and baths, surrounded by ``acreage,'' was offered for sale at a My-Goodness! price - the end of a family farm and the beginning of a summer place. I presume it was immediately snapped up at the ridiculous sub-million suggestion. The listed attractions included spacious zinc-lined grain bins in the ample barn, and I fell to wondering if a new owner ``from away'' would have any idea why a 10-room colonial on the Maine coast would sport a barn with zinc-lined grain bins. For normal barn use, a Maine farmstead would have a plain ``grain chest,'' the size depending on the number of animals kept. It might be 12 feet long, say, with compartments for bran, middlings, shorts, cornmeal, dairy rations, scratch feed, and so on. It would stand on legs or some support to keep it up off the floor. This allowed the barn cat to patrol beneath for vermin, called varmints. Otherwise, the huge zinc-lined bins found now and then were a sign of the rent collector, and we're going back considerably.

Most Maine communities began with a grant or purchase, whereby somebody came into ownership of public lands to exploit for his own purposes. Many such landowners never visited their property, but engaged an agent who would recruit settlers. The land was not expensive, even in those days of pennies and shillings, and in addition to settlers the agent would have to find a blacksmith, miller, teacher, and so on to round out the community. Usually the settler would be assigned a lot of land and be given a ``bond for a deed.'' This was a promise that as soon as he paid for his lot he would get good and sufficient title, and the settler would then enter upon his pioneer life with a debt to be paid off by his labors and production. Money seldom figured; the mortgage ``rent'' was paid off in livestock, lumber, and grain. The agent had to store the grain until he had enough to make up an ox-team load and begin the shipment to, usually, Boston. This accounts for the sizable bins found now and then in a Maine barn, and almost always a little inquiry will take things back to the land agent who looked after the business affairs of the absent owner.

The absent owner, living down at ``The Bay,'' was obliged to rely completely on his agent, and so long as abundant profits accrued he would enjoy his prosperity. But ``Down Maine,'' at a distance from Massachusetts Bay, the agent also lived in comfort, and there is ample reason to suppose he was not above unscrupulous handling of his employer's affairs. Perhaps only part of the wheat went to Boston.

And in time, you see, the little settlement with its back-break farms, its sawmill and gristmill, its schoolhouse and parsonage, would become a town and incorporate. Here and there the land agent would get his name on the library, or a school, and his big house, the best in town, would be a landmark. ``The old such-and-such place,'' it would be called, and it would be - and sometimes still is - pointed out to visitors. It's the place with the zinc-lined grain bins.

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