ABOVE The early-1900s fish-drying house writer Matt O’Donnell has toted around for nearly two decades and used as a writing cabin now rests on a ledge in his Phippsburg yard, its picture window trained on the Kennebec River. He recently whitewashed the original plank walls and installed a handmade pine-shiplap ceiling.
TEXT BY MATT O'DONNELL
PHOTOGRAPHED BY TARA RICE
From our Winter 2022 issue
When I drove to Orr’s Island to fetch the Fishouse on a chilly November morning in 2003, it sat exactly as Lawrence Sargent Hall had left it when he died 10 years earlier. His desk, topped with what I initially thought was a leather blotter, but turned out to be a piece of 1960s linoleum, was mottled with candle wax from a pressed-tin candelabra and displayed decanters of vodka and water, his dictionary, a book he’d been reading (Short Stories by Luigi Pirandello), and a framed black-and-white photo of his favorite setter, Jack. Sticks of firewood filled a beat-up wooden trunk near a small cast-iron woodstove. For several years, I burned wood that Hall had cut, mixing it with what I worked up to make the old stash last longer.
A fisherman and boatyard owner named Dennis Wilson built the 6-by-10-foot cedar-shingled shack in the early 1900s for storage and drying fish. In 1952, Hall, a young Bowdoin College English professor, bought the boatyard and moved the shack to his nearby home, where he turned it into a writing cabin dubbed “Fishouse”— with one “h,” as indicated by the door-key’s handwritten paper tag before it became mattress filling for nesting mice. Hall wrote in the Fishouse for more than 50 years, producing works such as the O’Henry Award-winning short story The Ledge, which John Updike included in his 1999 Best American Short Stories of the Century, and the Faulkner Award-winning novel Stowaway.
ABOVE Former owner Lawrence Sargent Hall wrote award-winning fiction, such as the 1959 short story The Ledge and the 1961 novel Stowaway, at the cabin’s linoleum-topped desk, illuminated by a candelabra. O’Donnell is working on an essay series here.
Hall’s son, with whom I’d connected through my job at Bowdoin, gave me the cabin when he sold his father’s property on Orr’s. I was a young poet, recently out of an MFA program, and beginning my writing career, and it pleased him to know that his father’s little word factory would have another life as such. I imagined the great literature that would pour from me there. How could it not? I’d be immersed in a veritable inkwell, soaking in decades of creative energy.
But even after the work of moving the Fishouse 50 miles to my Pittston backyard and reassembling its contents, even after sitting at the desk nearly every day, reading and writing, I felt like merely a steward for Hall. That began to change one morning when, staring out the 16-pane picture window that occupies one of the cabin’s gable ends, I thought of the name for the non-profit poetry archive the poet Camille Dungy and I were starting: From the Fishouse. For the last 18 years, I’ve worked on From the Fishouse in the Fishouse, while toting it around like some itinerant literary snail.
The cabin is mounted on wooden beams that raise it off the ground to keep rot at bay and, when necessary, help slide the building when one needs to move it, as I’ve done six times. It had its longest tenure with me, nearly 10 years, in its second spot in Pittston, where I would trudge a couple hundred feet from the house into the woods with my coffee to sit at the desk before commuting to Bowdoin. The Fishouse has never had electricity, so the flicker of five candles in the candelabra and one in a chamberstick provide just enough light before the sun comes up and, surprisingly, helps to warm the desktop on cold mornings while the woodstove strives to reach temperature.
“The Fishouse has never had electricity, so the flicker of five candles in the candelabra and one in a chamberstick provide just enough light before the sun comes up and, surprisingly, helps to warm the desktop on cold mornings while the woodstove strives to reach temperature.”
In 2014, I moved to Topsham, where the building began to succumb to rot while I found myself too busy to write while working and raising my daughter. Eventually, a friend helped me replace the roof and, in 2020, another friend pitched in on a gut renovation. We insulated from the outside with rigid material to give the mice less to nest in. Over that, cedar shingles and simple pine window trim went back on as before. Inside, I whitewashed the original plank walls and installed a ceiling of handmade pine shiplap with boards a friend milled from trees salvaged from the Androscoggin River. I stained the original wood floor to match the gray of the shingles, and found an area rug in the same green as Hall’s wall-to-wall. Shortly thereafter, the Fishouse and I moved again.
A hired truck arrived on the appointed day last summer, tilted back its flatbed, winched the cabin aboard, then trundled south to Phippsburg and deposited it on our lawn. A neighbor with a tractor eased it down a steep hill to flat ground, where, with railroad ties and assorted beams, I constructed a ramp to raise the cabin onto a ledge overlooking the Kennebec River. I wrapped a tow rope around the skids, hooked it to an electric hand winch anchored to a tree stump, and watched the Fishouse climb — then slide back down the ramp like a runaway caboose. I rebuilt the ramp and bought a higher-rated tow rope. The next day, the Fishouse was back on top.
Last fall, I reinstalled the woodstove and furnishings just in time to start lighting early-morning fires and writing at my desk again. I sent photos of the renovation and latest move to an old Maine friend who lives on the West Coast. He called me immediately — “You know,” he said, “I miss being around people who think that is a good use of their time and resources.” Lately, as I work on a series of essays, I’ve been thinking about accomplishment, and about regret. I’m beginning to understand regret as a not entirely negative emotion, but as a catalyst for learning and growth. I regret the countless hours I have not accomplished any writing in the Fishouse in the last nearly two decades, but I don’t regret a minute I’ve spent on its namesake poetry foundation, or on renovating it and moving it from place to place. I’ve long thought that the significance of this little building was its history, its novelty, its charm, and those always seemed worth preserving. But in all these years caring for the Fishouse, I’ve learned that what I’ve actually been preserving is something even more important: possibility.
Matt O’Donnell worked for more than 20 years at Bowdoin College, where he was editor of Bowdoin Magazine. He is the founding editor and executive director of From the Fishouse, an online audio archive of contemporary poetry that focuses on emerging poets, and director of writing programs for Santosha on the Carrabassett, in Kingfield.