ROCKPORT — Back in 1973, when Ethel “Billie” Gammon launched the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore in Franklin County, the notion of a “hands-on” museum was considered “just left of radical,” as one of Gammon’s former students put it.
Today, that approach is not only accepted in the teaching and preserving of history, it is embraced.
Gammon, 83, was honored with the Maine Humanities Council’s Constance H. Carlson Public Humanities Prize on Wednesday for her work in first saving, then restoring Norlands. Speakers ranging from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to a protege lauded Gammon for her persistence and spirit in bringing the past to life at the center. Gammon was given the award at a luncheon at the Samoset Resort.
The Norlands center is the restored 19th century farm and homestead of Israel and Martha Washburn and their children. The couple’s seven sons and three daughters accounted for: two governors, four congressmen, a senator, two ambassadors, a Civil War general, a Navy captain, a secretary of state, the inventor of the typewriter and founder of the Washburn-Crosby Gold Medal Flour company.
But rather than merely represent the family history with dry documents and fading mementos, Gammon had a vision of a place where schoolchildren, teachers and tourists could appreciate what 19th century life was like in Maine by living it, if only for a short time. The center includes a Victorian mansion, barn, granite library, church, one-room schoolhouse and much of the original farmland, which is still in production.
Ferris remembered Gammon telling her, “Outhouses are the most effective artifacts for teaching seat-of-the-pants history.” She said “Billie believed that true museum professionalism began with shoveling manure.” Looking at Gammon seated at the head table, Ferris said, “You always told us not to be ashamed of the manure on our shoes, but to be sure to brush it off before the review committee from the Maine Humanities Council came.”
Ferris remembered visits to Gammon’s home in which she would be handed a piece of fresh-out-of-the oven blueberry pie and a grant application to work on. She also recalled giving tours of the site, doing research and “milking the cow on the weekend.” By Gammon’s design, Norlands was a far cry from museums in which docents gave tours, escorting visitors around “Do not touch” signs and velvet ropes.
Gammon moved to Livermore in 1938 with her husband. She later earned degrees in education. In 1954, she was asked by town leaders to “organize” an old stone library on the Washburn family complex. In took Gammon nearly 20 years to save Norlands, turning it into a nonprofit educational foundation in 1973.
Gammon’s approach was a forerunner of the “heritage tourism” style in such historical sites, Ferris said. Gammon aggressively pursued grants and donations, and helped the center achieve its current stature. Thousands of Maine students visit each year on field trips, and the center offers a distinctive program for teachers, enabling them to earn recertification credits by living at Norlands for a weekend, “becoming” a character from the period, and living as that person would have more than a century ago.
After accepting the award, Gammon told of a seventh-grader who the center was able to reach, breaking through the static of television. All students preparing to visit Norlands are given a test before they arrive, she said. The last two questions on the test ask whether the student would want to live in the 1870s, and why or why not. The boy replied that he would not, because it would mean too much hard work. He knew this, he wrote, “Because I seen it all on TV.”
After visiting Norlands, in a post-test, the answer changed to “yes,” Gammon said, with the boy now giving as his reason that there are all kinds of great chores to do.
Gammon also shared her secrets for success, including: having a clear vision, sharing that dream with many, working hard to achieve it, never taking no for an answer, and relying on the Bible for the answers on how to live.
She quoted George Bernard Shaw in her closing, agreeing with his definition of the joy of life being seizing the torch. “I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,” she said.
Collins spoke about her memories of the late Constance H. Carlson, for whom the Maine Humanities Council’s annual award is named. Carlson taught at the University of Maine and was president of the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
Collins said contemporary Americans are overwhelmed with information, much of it unhelpful, “because we’ve lost our links to the past.” She said places like Norlands “allow us to appreciate our connection to the past.”
Last year, the first Carlson award was given to Tabitha King.