Ethar Milliken, a devout and hardworking farmer who had served his country in World War I, lay in bed thinking about what would become of his two farms in Kennebunkport.
Like the great fires of 1947 swept across York County, he had driven the flames from his land and had suffered a heart attack. Doctors told him that he would never again be able to work from morning to night on his farms. As he recovered, he dwelt not on what he might lose but on how to give back to God all the good in his life.
Milliken had read about the plight of refugee families in Europe living in overcrowded camps, dreaming of rebuilding lives elsewhere, and knew he could help. For more than two dozen of these refugees, this other place became one of Milliken’s farms in a quiet little town on the coast of Maine.
From 1949 to 1955, Milliken’s Freedom Farm on Arundel Road provided a home and livelihood for refugees from Ukraine, Estonia and Poland who fled war and labor camps in Eastern Europe. . Some had been prisoners of war. About 30 immigrants – six families and six single men – began their life in America on the Kennebunkport farm. Some later settled in East Pittston, where Ukrainian families formed a farming community.
Sharon Cummins, the Kennebunkport Historical Society historian, first heard about the history of Freedom Farm years ago and researched its origins and the people who lived there. As she watched Ukrainians suffer during the Russian invasion, she thought back to Milliken and those who found a home at Freedom Farm over 70 years ago.
“I thought about how one person was able to make a difference with extraordinary generosity,” she said. “I just hope something like this could happen again.”
Cummins recently wrote about Freedom Farm and shared photos of the families who lived there in a post on the historical society’s Facebook page. Freedom Farm’s story has not been forgotten in Kennebunkport, she said, but she wanted to highlight the generosity of Milliken and his wife, Vera Stone Milliken, at a time when Ukrainians are once again being forced to flee the war.
“Ethar was a very godly, humble guy,” Cummins said. “I’ve heard so many people say he’s always been like that. It wasn’t a one-time thing.
After Milliken decided to use his second farm to help others, he turned it over to the United Baptist Convention of Maine. Freedom Farm became a statewide project, with the cooperation of the Federal Displaced Persons Office. All of the Freedom Farm families passed through American displaced persons camps in Germany, where life was just survival, Cummins said.
There was some local resistance to Milliken’s plan, but it didn’t last.
“People were probably still reeling from World War II and thinking about what it meant to have strangers in town,” Cummins said. “But they really came out and offered tremendous support.”
Before the families could move in, there was a lot of work to do on the 156-acre farm, especially on the 11-room farmhouse that would be turned into three apartments.
“With true New England thoroughness, the housewives scrubbed the farmhouse floors; the husbands painted and wallpapered the walls. A team of ministers covered the roof with shingles,” Robert Montgomery recounted in a 1954 Christian publication called Guideposts.
The Baptist Youth Fellowship raised funds to purchase a team of horses, and a church in Farmington Falls provided a cow. Other gifts poured in: 25 chickens, a cat and a dog, canned food and clothes.
In June 1949, the first families moved to Freedom Farm.
FIND FREEDOM ON THE FARM
Fourmis Parna, his wife, Agnès, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lembi, were the first to arrive. They had fled Estonia just in time to miss being forced into a Russian labor camp. They traveled on foot and hid in a freight car, begging for food and eating raw potatoes that Parna was able to harvest at night. By the time they reached an American camp in the American zone of Germany, Lembi was nearly blind from malnutrition. His sight was restored a few months after arriving in Maine.
Parna, who had been a foreman in a shoe factory, arrived too late in the season to plant crops. Three local ministers helped harvest a bumper crop of hay worth $2,500 to get Freedom Farm off to a good start.
“God takes care of these people,” Milliken said, according to Guideposts.
A month after the Parnas arrived, a dedication service was held at Freedom Farm to honor “Future Americans,” a name Baptists preferred to the displaced. Agnes Parna was asked what she thinks of her adopted country, according to Montgomery’s Guideposts story.
“Happy Land!” she replied with a broad smile.
That fall, two more families were welcomed to Freedom Farm. Mr. and Mrs. Mykola Wolotschaj and their 3-year-old son, Ivan, were from Poland, which was first occupied by Communist Russia and then by Nazi Germany.
Wassily and Eugenie Gontschar and their 21-year-old son, Mykola, were from Otyniia, Ukraine, and had spent four years in camps for displaced people. Their two teenage sons had been taken to a German labor camp and were never heard from again. Her parents were also killed, according to Cummins. In 1944 Wassily Gontschar, his wife and eldest son were taken away by Germans, but ended up with Americans before they could be forced into labor camps.
After living at Freedom Farm and adjusting to life in America, the Ukrainian couple moved to a farm in Kennebec County. Their son, who has now gone by Mike, got a job as a porter at Maine General Hospital in Portland.
Mike Gontschar spoke little English when he started his job, but learned quickly through demonstration, according to a 1950 article in the Portland Press Herald.
“But once he learned it, he never forgot; he never needed to be told how to do anything again; he never again had to be told where a place was,” wrote Roger V. Snow. Young Gontschar took English lessons at Portland Evening School and made plans to continue his education.
The Wowk family from Ukraine was the last to arrive at Freedom Farm. Alexander Wowk, a farmer, had lost an eye due to torture. His parents and six siblings were all killed by the Communists. Wowk came to Maine with his wife, Etuhenija, and their young children, Alec and Ludmilla, who were born in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
A week after arriving at Freedom Farm, Etuhenija Wowk watched her two children play in the sun, Montgomery told Guideposts.
“America is what I thought heaven would be,” she said.
A NEW LIFE IN KENNEBEC COUNTY
The Wowks only stayed at Freedom Farm for a few months before moving to East Pittston. They were among 11 families – nine from Ukraine and two from Russia – who settled on farms in the small town of Kennebec County. They worked from dawn to dusk.
Many families were brought to Maine by K. V. Poushental, a Pittston man who worked in real estate and saw an opportunity to improve farmland and provide housing for refugees who needed it. He contacted a refugee center in New York and tried to reunite families of the same faith. All of the new residents were devout Baptists.
“Years of hardship and hardship are etched on the faces of newcomers who survived both Bolshevik persecution and Nazi forced labor camps,” Margaret Frazier wrote in a 1951 Portland Sunday Telegram article.
Frazier described how a scattering of ‘desolate east Pittston farms looked like paradise’ to the 50 displaced people and war refugees who settled there. All of them had been in camps before coming to the United States.
“Although they still instinctively back away at the sound of a police siren, half-expecting someone to descend on their shelter and snatch them, or snatch it away from them, they say they already ‘feel’ the freedom they seek and are grateful to be in America,” Frazier wrote.
Families would catch barrels of fish in the Eastern River, cut their hay fields, and tend to canning and preserving garden produce and wild fruits for winter. Some arrived too late in the season to plant gardens and instead hosted summer guests from out of state. They filled their homes with furniture discarded by neighbors or brought from the dump and refurbished.
“The ramshackle farms of Pittston may soon look like heaven to anyone at the rate these industrious people are advancing,” Frazier wrote. “With some of them here only weeks or months, they repaired buildings, cleaned up property, planted gardens and put in poultry and livestock.”
Neighbors along Stilphen Road have become accustomed to hearing hymns coming from families’ homes. Their church services were lively, neighbors told Telegram, and grew happier over time.
“‘God bless America and the American people’ figure prominently in their prayers, and the ancient people of Ukraine shed tears of gratitude for their own improved fortunes and tears of grief for their lost loved ones,” said writes Frazier.
A year after the last refugee family left Freedom Farm, Ethar Milliken passed away. The farm was sold in 1963 and burnt down on January 28, 1968. The barn has since been converted into a private residence.
“Only the barn remains to remind us of Ethar Milliken’s gift and the shattered lives he changed,” Cummins said.
And, perhaps, the descendants of the people he helped.
Supreme Court nomination puts Susan Collins in the spotlight again