Bowdoinham Historical Society - 50 Years and Counting!

Dr. Robert Cummins and Frank Connors 1972

“Two dozen people meeting in the Town Hall on a warm evening in April, 1970, formed what was soon to become our Bowdoinham Historical Society. Dr. Robert Cummins moderated that initial session, which produced a By-Laws and an officer nominating committee, and proved that Bowdoinham did indeed have sufficient interest to warrant our infant society’s existence… The purpose of the Historical Society… is To collect and to preserve records and physical objects relating to the history of Bowdoinham.  By-Laws as adopted on May 18, 1970, said the Society may establish and operate a local history museum, a library, and one or more historic sites in pursuit of its purpose… the Society may otherwise preserve, advance, and disseminate knowledge of the aforesaid locale [Bowdoinham] in any manner prescribed.”  The first slate of officers elected were Frank Connors, president; Linwood Rideout, vice president; Leslie Anderson, secretary; and Fred Temple, treasurer. Three trustees named were Priscilla Berry, Zina Maxwell, and Howard Peckworth.”   Other names mentioned in this first Bowdoinham Advertiser by Frank Connors, included Thelma Pratt, Eva Palmer, Jane Connors, and Patti Blake.   By the 3rd annual Meeting held in Merrymeeting Grange on May 10, 1972, BHS had 226 members and had raised $1,165 to fund our goals.

            And so it has gone. BHS has had lean years and years of great progress and activity, we have had quiet times, and even times of hibernation, but all the time we have been saving and collecting and researching Bowdoinham’s past as a gift to our future citizens.

            What, indeed, has Bowdoinham Historical Society achieved in its first fifty years?

            One of its first acts was to save the ancient cemetery which was to be obliterated by Interstate 95. The State Highway Commission redesigned that section to leave the cemetery in the median, thanks to Frank Connors’ efforts. (1970)

            Bowdoinham’s oldest cemetery might have disappeared in soil and leaves had not the PTC given BHS a gift to allow its research, rediscovery, and restoration.  From this start has come BHS’s continued interest in and work toward saving Bowdoinham’s cemeteries.

            In the late 1970s BHS received a CETA grant to employ Smith College student Marilyn Hinkley. One of her tasks was to locate Bowdoinham’s 65+ cemeteries and to map, and catalogue the stones of citizens buried there.  In 2010, Todd Woofenden began the job of digitizing the material from Marilyn’s Cemetery Cards, a project which was completed in 2016 with the help of the MAC-BHS Maine Arts and Humanities Grant. This work has become a basis for the Town’s Advisory Committee on Cemeteries which has recently taken on the job of watching over Bowdoinham’s cemeteries.

            Another early BHS project was the purchase (1971) and restoration of the

Old-School (Conservative) Baptist Church, 7 Browns Point Road, a long-term project which has resulted (2014) in BHS’s lovely Meeting House and Museum.

            And while we are on the subject of historic buildings, in 1975-6 BHS helped refit Bowdoinham’s first telephone exchange building on Back Hill as our first Research and Record Center.

            Then 2012 saw our 250th Birthday Present to Bowdoinham, the completion of the restoration of Jellerson School (1853-1946), Bowdoinham’s last one-room school. Since then classes of children have come to experience a living history 1910 school day as well as to visit the Merrymeeting Bay Museum housed there.

            Needing a larger office and work space, in 2013 BHS received permission to use the abandoned Superintendents Room on the 3rd floor of the Coombs School and turned it into the friendly Lancaster Bishop Research & Reading room. The room was insulated, painted, and equipped with shelves. We must now leave it because the 3rd floor has no 2nd exit. Perhaps someday, if the town sees fit to add an exterior fire escape to that level, that space, our storage room, the Library’s book storage area, as well as the remaining large area can again be put to use.

            As we began to provide safe haven to more and larger treasures of Bowdoinham history, we needed more and different space. This led to Tom DeForeest’s brain child, The Carriage House, which helps hold our collections, from quilts to carriages.  (2015)

            But our interests and efforts have not just been for properties we own.

BHS has worked over many years to support the Ridge Church. We have advocated for preservation of the Town Hall.  The Coombs School might not have been saved in the 1980s to become the Coombs Municipal Building, including the Library, had not BHS supported its study and restoration. Doing it The Bowdoinham Way”, Coombs School was changed from an abandoned but well-built school building into the town office and library. Fred Pauling, Merle MacDonald, and others pooled local expertise and energy, while local fund-raising efforts such as the Coombs School Thrift Shop and the Coombs School Quilt helped raise needed funds.

            Bowdoinham’s five homes now on the National Register of Historic Places might not have been so designated without the support of BHS.  And we continue the work on recognizing historic homes as we again photograph, research, and describe our homes, working toward an Historic District in Bowdoinham.

            BHS’s efforts are not limited to structures. The Fire Hand-tub Phenix  (1798) would be long gone instead of being in the process of restoration, were it not for the Historical Society’s continued interest and action. 1n 2015, BHS worked with Merrymeeting Grange to assure that Bowdoinham artist Isaac Fisher Eaton’s magnificent painting, The Battle of Gettysburg, found a safe haven in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. We have purchased items relating to Bowdoinham such as the sampler wrought by 10 year old Zeluma Bates (White)  of the Ridge Rd in 1810, which now hangs in the library.  A giclee of the painting of the Ship Wabash, built in the Harward Yard on the Kennebec in 1849, was created when we could not afford the original and also hangs in the library. The boxes of glass negatives from photographer Bainbridge Porter Brown (1860s) have been discovered, preserved, and catalogued.

            Many other town records and artifacts have found a safe home with BHS. We have Town Tax Valuation Books from as early as the 1830s,Town Reports from 1870, letters and deeds, diaries and scrapbooks, maps and ledgers.  We have worked to create oral histories.

And there is the incredible Bowdoinham Photo Collection. Beginning in 1970, Frank Connors searched out old photographs, made copies, and put them together in notebooks.  There are always people in the BHS Tent at Celebrate Bowdoinham who take joy from poring over these old photos. These and Frank’s Bowdoinham Building Photos from 1974 are invaluable to our work towards an Historic District.

            As 2012 and Bowdoinham’s 250th birthday approached, BHS worked to track down William Kendall’s 1912 Century Fund, which had been ‘mislaid in the town books.’ Once ‘rediscovered,’ the $67,000 which had grown from the original $535, could be put to its intended use, funding many worthy “educational and charitable projects,” as well as putting by the required sum to await 2112.  The Historical Society also took on the task of working with the material in Kendall’s 1912 Century Box, cataloging and copying material from 1912, 1932, and 1962 and making it accessible. We then helped gather materials to be added as the 2012 contribution to the box and held a resealing ceremony on 10/22/2013.

            We can’t forget the BHS Quilts, a fundraising effort by the ladies of the Historical Society:  US Bicentennial Quilt (1976), Coombs School Quilt (1977), Bham BBQ Quilt commemorating the BBQ’s 25th year (1978), a Sampler Quilt (1980), and an Album Quilt (1982), Bowdoinham’s 250th Quilt (2011-12), and the  250th Kids Quilt: We Love Bowdoinham.

            BHS has sponsored numerous publications:  The Bowdoinham Advertisers, Frank Connors editor, 14 issues 1972 to 1985 as well as his history of School House Hill Atop That Hill, are classics of Bowdoinham history.  We had Silas Adams’ History of the Town of Bowdoinham, Maine 1762-1912 reprinted, so that it is again available.  In the 1980s BHS also helped with the binding of a set of Bowdoinham’s Town Reports which live in the Library.       BHS played a major role in the creation of the 2012 250th Birthday Book The Bay, The Land, The People. We gave encouragement and photo help for Bert Dunlap’s Life on the Abadadassett, Marilyn Darnell’s Anything But Dull, Gill Hoff’s The Lost Tale of the William and Mary, and Jeff Fischer’s video Growing Up Bowdoinham,

            We have supported town functions over the years. The Bowdoinham Barbecue would have been the poorer from 1970 to its finale in 1991 without the BHS Art Show, the BHS Farmer’s Market and Knitting Booth, (1976 on) and other fun booths created and manned by assorted children of the Historical Society– all in their 50s now!!!  BHS has had floats in town parades and produced major displays at Celebrate and for Open Farm Days.  From 2005-2008 we sold hamburgers and hotdogs and often strawberry shortcake at the concerts. In the last 2 years we have put on 4 concert suppers, and have continued our traditional sale of strawberry shortcake at the Open Farm Day BBQ.

            We have partnered with other organizations in town to sponsor speakers and programs.  In the past, BHS worked closely with Merrymeeting Arts Center,  adding an historical component to their art shows; “Three Bowdoinham Artists” “Bay Clay, Bay Bricks, Bay Pottery”, and “WWI” are but a few.  In 2015-16 BHS undertook a major event with MAC:  “Merrymeeting Monologues,” culminating in the magical play Hallowed Ground, Forgotten Voices.

            And of course we have put on many of our own programs and productions

In the 1970s and 80s Bowdoinhamers enjoyed the Historical Society’s community Harvest Suppers at the Grange Hall. There were also Chowder Suppers, Silent Auctions, Concerts and Plays, and oh so many interesting speakers. Of course Frank’s slideshows never fail to draw a crowd.

            Other BHS events included Kitchens and Keepsakes Tour (1983), Two Celebrations of Bham Veterans (2005, 2012), The Quilt Show (2010), the Antiques Street Show (2011), and the Village House Tour (2019)  Our Themed Years began in 2013 with Childhood Past. Seafaring and Shipbuilding (2014), The Year of the Camera (2015), Digging Up the Past (2016). 200 years of Farming  (2017), Bowdoinham’s Fires and The Men, Women, and Equipment that Fight Them (2018), and Bowdoinham 1880-1930 50 years of Change (2019) followed. This Year’s Theme is 1820.

            To bring Bowdoinham history to our youngest citizens, for the last 10 years BHS members have visited Bowdoinham Community School’s 4th grades for a Bowdoinham History and Tradition Skills Day, in which students were able to rotate among 8-10 stations on Bowdoinham History and the aspects of life in the past.

            Let us end with Bowdoinham Historical Society’s latest and most ambitious service to the town and its people: Merrymeeting Hall: A Community Center for Bowdoinham.  Due to the idea born of the consensus at BCDI’s trailblazing Community Conversations meeting in September 2017, that Bowdoinham loves its historic village and the old buildings that populate it, and that there was a near universal wish for a centrally located, multi-use community center, Bowdoinham Historical Society used money from a bequest by Eva Palmer to purchase the empty Merrymeeting Grange #258, an historic and cultural center in town since 1904. Since taking possession in May of 2018, BHS has developed a plan and raised money to restore the building in ways that follow the suggestions in the BCDI Community Conversations #2 of October 2017.  Merrymeeting Hall has been stabilized with a new foundation that creates an excellent new space on the ground (basement) floor. Its north roof has been replaced and its windows refurbished. Site work has been done. The building has been rewired, insulated, and a new heating system installed. The kitchen is on the verge of becoming a certified kitchen. We have an ADA ramp, and two of three ADA bathrooms are ready.

            In 2019 MMH hosted many functions: town-related, non-profit, social gatherings, and private events.  Until Covid struck, our calendar was full.

            This is a building owned and maintained by the Historical Society, supported financially, materially, and with time and expertise by the citizens of Bowdoinham, created not as a business for BHS but as a service to the town, the latest in our long and continuing parade of services to the People of Bowdoinham.