A fairy house, or gnome home, is a small structure built in the woods, usually found at the base of a tree, or in lower branches, alongside a mossy tree stump, or driftwood on a beach. Building materials include natural and found things from the woods, but sometimes people add common household items, such as a button, a bottle cork, a piece of string. It is a 100+ year tradition in Maine, especially along the coast and on the islands. But fairy houses can be found throughout the country, and in other countries. In Maine the tradition dates back to the early 1900s, when many island communities had working farms. Traveling schoolteachers from Massachusetts brought folk tales involving fairies that inspired islanders—children and adults alike—to build gnome homes to attract fairies in order to watch over the livestock and children during Maine winters. A fairy house traditionally included a tiny altar with a small offering, such as a coin, to pay the fairies to help the farmers; if there was a particularly harsh winter, and children or livestock died, the more superstitious islanders blamed the fairies.
Over the decades, fairy houses—whether to allow them, for instance, has been a controversy on some Maine islands, including Monhegan. (Wall Street Journal covered this story in 1999, along with several Maine newspapers). I have found fairy houses on over 60 of Maine’s islands, and have built them over the years in many “secret” locations throughout Maine. Every mother I met on the islands I visited believed that her children originated the fairy house idea but this is actually a centuries old tradition in some parts of the world. I have also witnessed as competitive parents stabilized their kids’ gnome homes with hot glue guns, duct tape and staples. In this case, the structure was really built in a workshop at home, then transplanted to the base of a tree. Generally, fairy houses are not permanent structures; they last until the end of summer or fall, then disintegrate during a typical rainstorm. In places where there are anti-fairy house forces, such as groups of people called, “Stompers,” sometimes the gnome home lasts only until it is discovered, which is why it is important to build anonymously, minimally and somewhere hidden. In other communities, fairy houses are enjoyed and even maintained by people—or gnomes—who can say for sure—and can last decades.
This week I helped teach local fourth-graders how to build “eco-friendly” fairy houses in Black Brook Preserve here in Windham, Maine. I’ve developed worksheets and taught elementary school kids how to think about fairy houses, or gnome homes, in an eco-friendly way. In fact, I became a sort of expert in the topic after completing a year-long project at College of the Atlantic. I visited over 25 Maine islands and researched the fairy house tradition on the Maine coast, and then wrote my college senior thesis on the ecological, political and historical aspects of the long-held tradition.