Historic Highlight

The History Behind Houlton's Blackhawk Putnam Tavern

The Blackhawk Putnam Tavern in Houlton Maine
TEXT BY JULIE SENK
PHOTOGRAPHED BY GABE SOUZA

Home, inn, restaurant, courtroom, and jail — the Blackhawk Putnam Tavern embodies Aroostook County history. 

In 1813, the northern-frontier settlement of Houlton Plantation saw the construction of one of its first wood-frame buildings, a fine Federal dwelling typical of southern Maine, but a standout here among the cluster of log cabins. Master carpenter Samuel Wormwood built the home for Aaron Putnam, a plantation founder and mill owner.

After the military road connecting Houlton to Mattawamkeag was completed in 1832, the Putnam family opened their house as an inn for travelers and new settlers arriving in their growing, now-incorporated town. Aaron’s cousin, sheriff John Varnum Putnam, remodeled it with Greek Revival trim and, in the basement, lodging of an entirely different sort — two jail cells serving the Washington County court sessions held intermittently on the second floor. (Legend has it that the cells were used for smoking hams after a courthouse and jail were constructed.)

It’s John’s son, Blackhawk, who gave the building its current moniker. Named for a warrior and leader of the Sauk American Indian tribe, he is best remembered for recruiting a cavalry company and travelling south to face Confederate troops in 1862. After returning to Houlton, he became a county sheriff, farmer, and businessman.

Over the next few decades, a bustling downtown would grow up around the Blackhawk Putnam Tavern. A Victorian-inspired portico would be added, past additions would be dismantled, and a restaurant would open and close, but otherwise the house has survived little changed and lays claim to being the oldest in the County.


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