Out of Our Past

Fifty Years of Artifacts

Exhibit opens June 10
Posted:  Wednesday, June 7, 2017 - 7:00am

The Boothbay Region Historical Society is having an exhibit to mark 50 years of collecting artifacts and documents of local historical significance. The society trustees putting it together have chosen artifacts for varying qualities—some are quirky rarities, like the bullet taken out of Civil War soldier Alden Winslow's leg, or are one of a kind, like the homemade telephone. Other were chosen to represent a whole class of items necessary in a bygone time. For instance, we're featuring pewter dinnerware brought from Ireland by early 1700s permanent settlers who settled "the howling wilderness" (as one 1730 pioneer called the region). The three plates are the only known surviving items to be brought across the ocean with the early settlers. Other items represent a whole collection, such as the first 1876 Boothbay Register or one of the local high school yearbooks. Others just struck a chord as an earlier incarnation of today's everyday items, like the local commercial spring bottles, one from the Harbor and one from East Boothbay.

Hardscrabble Lives

Some of the chosen items point out the humble nature of life in Boothbay. For most of its four centuries, local residents lived modest, self-reliant, mostly subsistence lives. Doing for yourself was the order of the day. Money was hard to come by, and only a fraction of the year was spent in cash labor. The inhabitants often made their own clothes, cut their own fuel, grew and cut their own animal feed, grew their own food, and usually had at least a cow and a pig for dairy products and meat. Store-bought food needs—very roughly a barrel of molasses, one of flour, and some baking powder (saleratus)—were miniscule compared to now. Bartering could often take care of blacksmith, textile, and even store needs. Account books show how varied the work lives were, with customers paying in fish, then in haying, then in wood chopping. Local people slip through categorizing fingers, doing any seasonal thing that could generate a little cash or staples, just as the times demanded.

Given those standards, much of what was needed to scrabble out a living was made by hand. You need an anchor but have no money? Make one out of a branch and a rock. You need a mackerel plow to slit your catch to make it look fatter to your buyer? Carve an ordinary or whimsical one and insert a tiny, sharp metal chip. You need an eel spear? Trade the blacksmith 20 pumpkins for one. Boothbay people were adaptive and practical.

Pride in Craftsmanship

However, most of the artifacts were commercially made, but local nonetheless. Earl Leavitt kindly agreed to write up an artifact, choosing a band cap to eloquently stand in for the perennial role of music in local celebrations, solemn occasions, or any time. We've used the exhibit as an opportunity to briefly sketch enduring elements of region conditions and the way of life with the cap and other artifacts.

Is there a site in the region that had a saw and/or grist mill on it for 400 years on and off? Yes, the East Boothbay tidemill site run by Champnois in the 1600s, Montgomerys and then Murrays in the 1700s, and Hodgdons in the 1800s and up to the 1940s. It is represented by a floorboard with the telltale sign of having been boomed down the Damariscotta River to the mill, found by sharp-eyed Brud Wallace when he renovated a family house. There are more tidemill artifacts elsewhere in the building.

Women, encouraged to demonstrate cleverness and ingenuity, strove for proficiency in sewing, represented by an 1800s sampler and a quilt. Men also wished to create items during down time, often carving and whittling objects such as mackerel plows or Orrington Abbott's intricate box.

What's Missing

In the mid-1800s, David Newbegin's bakery and its most well-known product "Newbegin's Biscuits" were famous all along the coast among seafarers for 50 years or more. That bakery is what Boothbay meant far and wide, just as Chicago meant meat. But now it is as though Newbegin never existed. We have no business papers; we don't know if he packaged his biscuits in sacks, boxes, or barrels. If he stamped his containers, we don't know what logo or flourish he dreamed up as a label. There's just nothing left of him. I wish that someday someone would walk into the museum with a Newbegin bag or box — anything to represent this chapter in our towns' history when transportation was by water, cod was king, and men out there had to eat.

We have a few wedding dresses, but no clothing that represented everyday life, no beat-up hat worn by a farmer every day in the field for years, no worn-out apron. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, workmen often wore overalls in good weather, even to haul traps. Overalls were sensible, eliminating loose material such as shirttails that can catch momentarily or haul you into deadly equipment; they don't ride up and they don't inch down: a great invention, comfortable, efficient, and worthy of space in a museum. But we have no old overalls. It's funny to think of all the everyday items you couldn't do without back then being gone now.

Our Towns

But there's still plenty of artifacts to see in our museum. Every town should take pride and memorialize itself, particularly its special qualities. Our museum represents many aspects of our past, unique or mundane, and we invite all to come and browse things from another time. The exhibit opens June 10 with an open house. We hope those who visit will tell us which artifacts they especially like or think are fascinating whether or not they're in the exhibit.