One of Bangor’s historical homes shelters a world-class collection of documents, photographs, furniture, ephemera and objects having to do not just with the Queen City’s past, but with historical threads to the world. Yet, the Greek Revival house looks like the tattered dress of a debutante who stayed too long at the ball.
The Thomas A. Hill House, home to the Bangor Historical Society, is in dire need of repair. The Ionic columns are distressed. The brick exterior needs repointing. The white trim could use a fresh coat of paint. The grounds could be spruced up. Inside, the Union Station clock and many other treasures are hidden from view due to a lack of space.
But not enough people are coming to the aid of the Bangor Historical Society – the repository for relics dating from the Civil War and Bangor’s days as the lumber capital of the world – in its quest to maintain its historic building and properly display its fine collection.
“At this point, we could easily go under,” said the society’s new executive director, Margaret Puckett, a retired lieutenant colonel who served as an information officer with the U.S. Army. She is appealing to conservation-minded citizens to step forward and help. For the last nine months, she said the society has been operating from payroll to payroll and most of its reserve funds have been depleted.
The 374-member society relies heavily on private donations and grants from area foundations to cover its operating costs and the upkeep of its 164-year-old headquarters. A recent $4,000 contribution has helped meet the salaries of the four-member staff and other basic costs.
“People in the state need to know what a treasure they have in this organization. It will take time and effort to expand it,” said Puckett. “It’s going to take people wanting to be involved and helping us in revitalization to make it grow. Without volunteers, financial development and interest in the organization, it could cease to exist.”
The Thomas A. Hill House, which sits on the high side of Union Street, at the corner of High Street, boasts a sweeping view of a white steeple or two, the Penobscot River and of the handsome homes called mansions in their heyday. It was built in 1836 and occupied by Thomas A. Hill until 1840, when it passed to Samuel H. Dale, and remained in his family, until it was sold to the Grand Army of the Republic in the 1950s. The GAR gave the building to the Bangor Historical Society in 1953.
David C. Smith, a retired UMaine professor whose expertise is on Maine and American history, knows the view from the Hill House well. He notes one can see the old Bangor House where four American presidents stayed. Across the street is the Isaac Farrar Mansion, where the University of Maine and its law school once were located and what later became the offices of the Bangor Symphony Orchestra.
“Three years ago, my wife and I volunteered at the historical society to teach fourth-graders about Bangor history. They came in knowing really nothing and left enriched with an idea about Bangor’s past, its part in the Civil War and the lumbering and logging industries.”
The Hill House houses a substantial Civil War collection, including: a rifle collection; a full apothecary set; the desk and docket box belonging to Abraham Lincoln’s first vice president, Hannibal Hamlin; a small, portable, 1741French-made cannon (with the fire power of a World War II bazooka); and other relics too numerous and large to be properly shown.
Veritable Victorian showcases, the parlor and dining rooms have been carefully preserved. They are furnished and decorated with objects and art created in Maine or brought to the state for the various Hill House owners, or simply shown as fine examples of the era.
The society’s current special exhibition, “One Hundred Oddities from Bangor’s Attic,” features items from around the world that were brought to Bangor, some of which were collected by people during their world travels.
For instance, the Bell Collection part of the exhibit consists of fine Oriental art. A dressing gown belonging to John Hancock and other treasures on view come from families such as the Holts, Dunbars and Flanders, and represent years of world travel and collecting. Many of the items were spared in the Great Fire of 1911, when 55 acres of Bangor’s commercial and residential areas were destroyed.
Among the unseen artifacts is a 600-piece collection of women’s fashions from 1820 to 1970, donated by the Quipis Club.
“This is a world-class collection of American fashion and textiles,” Puckett said. “We aren’t just expanding with these items, we are exploding – with marvelous things we can’t begin to show the public, including the Union Station clock! There just is no more room.”
“We need to move the entire historical collection to where it all can be seen, and also to include the administrative offices,” she added. “The hope is to develop a complete museum and heritage center. We would like to maintain the Hill House as the historic building it is, and to return it to its GAR roots and have it function exclusively as a Civil War museum.”
At one point, the society explored the possibility of moving to a more suitable building along Bangor’s riverfront. While the location would have been ideal, Puckett said that option did not pan out and the waterfront building is slated to be razed and the property to become part of the city’s redevelopment project.
The society has an extensive outreach program ranging from the popular Ghostly Candlelight Walking Tours lead this fall to the Mount Hope Cemetery tours where the graves of the famous (Hannibal Hamlin) and infamous (gangster Al Brady, killed in downtown Bangor) are pointed out.
There are activities for children, including classroom tutorials about Maine toys; early explorers and ships; 19th century painter J.P. Hardy and logging and lumbering history.
Students in grades K-12 are entitled to free membership as General Joshua Chamberlain associates, Puckett said. All programs and tours for children and youths under 18 are free.
“We have ‘Saturday mornings at the museum’ for younger children, which offers programs like Valentine’s Day card-making sessions and May Day basket-making lessons,” she said. “There are Penobscot Heritage activity kits that are designed for classroom or home schooling use.”
There also are traveling exhibits for schools and clubs. They include illustrations and large posters that can be mounted and displayed, covering topics such as the Brady Gang, Bangor’s old Bijou Movie Theatre, The Civil War, the Maine Music Festival (1897-1920), the state’s railways, 19th century currency and the battleship U.S.S. Maine.
From April 1-Dec. 22, the society’s doors are open to the public. Guided tours by trained docents allow visitors to step back into the 19th century, but also see the connections to Bangor in the present and get a sense of how it became the city it is today.
“When I walk around downtown, I think about who lived here, when the building was built and that kind of thing. We tend to take the city for granted,” Smith said. “If we allow the Bangor Historical Society to die, we are really taking the city for granted. We are saying, ‘If we let it go, it doesn’t matter.”‘
For information about the society and its programs, call 942-5766, or visit the web site at www.bairnet.org/organizations/bangorhist/history.htm.