How the Museum was Built

Museum a Miracle in Milbridge

By Terry Hussey

It's still something of a miracle for the members of the Milbridge Historical Society when they open the door of their museum to guests each summer. The museum, completely debt free, is enjoying its fifth season, and has had more than 1,000 visitors sign the guest book each summer. The brand new atmospheric-controlled building was built and paid for in less than two years by a small but dedicated core group and a supportive community.

The minutes of the very first meeting of the Milbridge Historical Society in July of 1989, show that all ten members felt that the organization needed a place to display the precious artifacts that town residents wanted to give them. At one time or another over the next few years, the organization looked at almost every building in town, hoping to find one that could be made into a museum. Everything either cost too much or would have been too difficult to make into a handicap accessible structure.

The turning point for the organization came in 1994 when the Society was given a piece of prime land on Main Street (coastal route 1). The only stipulation made by the donors was that the organization make some effort toward having a building within five years or risk losing the generous gift. We didn't have to have a building, but we did have to be working on it.

With the help of the Cultural Resources staff (CRIC) at the Maine State Museum and a small grant from the Washington County Fund of the Maine Community Foundation, in the fall of 1994, the Milbridge Historical Society launched a campaign to raise $90,000 to build a museum. "I think we all knew we were going to need $100,000, but the smaller figure seemed less frightening," said the building fund chair, Richard Hussey. People in the community were supportive, but all agreed it would probably be a three to five year project. There just aren't that many resources available in a small Downeast town of 1305 people.

Society members wrote letters to individuals, and worked in pairs to call on businesses. They money was coming in. People seemed to want to be part of something that looked like it would be a success. When the board had raised just over half their goal, they began to write grants. When the goal was almost in sight, they wrote another letter to all their donors. It said, "If we could get an average of $55 from each of our 115 members, we could begin construction. " To their joy and amazement, the money came in!

In all, there were over 400 donors to the project. The largest donations were two corporate gifts of $10,000 each. Most of the money, however, was in $25 increments. Grant funds for the building totaled $17,000. Of special help were two $5,000 grants to be used for creating displays and for proper storage equipment and supplies.

The Society broke ground for their new museum building in October 1995. The following June, the doors to the 28' x 80' building were opened to the public. The ribbon cutting ceremony at the museum was a real community event with a three-piece band, balloons, and almost 400 people in attendance. People seemed to feel that it was their museum, and they were proud of it. The total cost of the museum, with paved parking lot and landscaping was $120,000, all of which has been paid in full.

During the intervening winter, the Society members had a lot to learn about operating a museum. They went to workshops all over the state to learn about conservation of artifacts. They visited other museums to learn about creating displays and proper methods of storage. While some of the men were building display cases, the women were making plans for what they would display. Items that had been given to the Society were scattered in basements and attics all over the community. These had to be gathered in, accessioned, numbered, and carefully packed away. "We were learning things we never thought we'd have to know, " said one member. "Other museums and historical societies were very generous is sharing their knowledge and experience with us. "

The board of the Milbridge Museum is committed to the concept of changing displays. They have created two cornerstone displays, one on shipbuilding and one on old methods of fishing, which are permanent. These are enlarged or changed slightly, each season, but mostly they stay the same. The rest of the exhibit hall is transformed each season. In 1998, the year of their town's sesquicentennial, they re-created Main Street in 1898. Each shop window held an exhibit from a store that existed in 1898. There was a milliner, a jeweler, an attorney, a grocery, and a general store.

This season they have created two rooms from a typical Milbridge home in 1900. There is a bedroom, complete with roped, spool bed, feather bed, quilt, washstand, and bedwarmer; and there is a parlor with settee, platform rockers, kerosene lamps, and a Regina Music Box. Because storage space is limited, many items are borrowed each season. Families seem to enjoy sharing their precious heirlooms for a season, but are happy to have them back to pass on to the next generation.

In 1997, DOT widened route 1, and the long-standing veterans' monument in town had to move. The Board of the Historical Society invited the Vet's Club to move their monument in front of the museum. They did so, and also raised enough money to erect a second monument to honor veterans from more recent wars. The addition of the monuments to the museum grounds has helped to firmly establish the museum as the heart of the community, the seat of its heritage.

During the summer months, local artists are invited to display their work in the meeting room. Four different artists are given wall space for a month each. We try to publicize their showing in all museum publicity and encourage visitors to contact the artist directly if they wish to purchase a painting. Some artists have sold a number of works, and all have gained additional local recognition.

The Historical Society now boasts a membership of 227, 66 of whom are lifetime members. The board established an endowment fund last year; a program, which many feel, was the final step in building the museum. Friends of the museum will be invited to remember the facility in their wills or when making memorial gifts. Interest from the Endowment Fund will be available for any unexpected major repair to the building or to see the museum through a difficult time in the future, should it occur.

We are continually seeking ways to widen our circle of supporters. We are also working on creating a more inter-active program for school children who visit the museum. The Milbridge Historical Museum was something of a miracle for the people of Milbridge. We hope it will continue to be one, as we discover new ways to better serve the community.

For more information about the Milbridge Historical Museum contact the museum at 207-546-4471

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