Category Archives: November 22

For nearly 40 years, working to keep the town’s history ‘in the public focus’

On October 25 Jim Skoglund stepped down from serving as president of the St. George Historical Society after nearly 37 years in that position. The society selected John Falla to be the group’s new president, but Skoglund will continue to serve as vice-president and as a trustee. Although this was a seemingly modest shift in leadership, it was not lost on any of the society’s members at that October gathering that a tremendous sea change had occurred during Skoglund’s watch—over these past several decades St. George had gone from being a community where there was little public recognition that the town’s history was a valuable community resource, to a place which celebrates and safeguards its heritage proudly.

The idea behind founding a historical society in St. George began with an old gun, Skoglund says. “One of my neighbors [in Wiley’s Corner] had died and he had in his possession an antique gun that we always marveled over—he used to fire it occasionally. And it was probably left to someone, but it kind of disappeared so I was left talking to one of my friends, Bradley Beckett, who lived in Cushing but was also descended from St. George families, and we decided there should be a place in town where people could leave things so everything didn’t get dispersed or sold.”

So the new historical society, which Skoglund, Beckett and five others—Albert Smalley, Steven Sullivan, Ed Hilt, Bernard Rackliff and Ralph Cline, Jr.—founded in 1981, was the first step in publicly flagging that there was an organization in town devoted to safeguarding St. George’s historical heritage.

Part of the reason the town’s history wasn’t widely known, Skoglund says, was that most records were not accessible. “Town records were kept in private homes,” he notes, adding by way of example, “For years I had in my own selfish possession the records of the old town poor farm and records of deeds because I was afraid someone would throw them away.” At that time, Skoglund explains, town officials were not particularly interested in keeping old documents, sometimes throwing them out. But after launching their new organization, Skoglund and the society’s history-minded members began focusing on changing that situation.

A major opportunity arose when the fate of the lighthouse keeper’s residence at Marshall Point became a question of community debate. While the lighthouse had been automated in 1971, the keeper’s house had continued in use as a LORAN station until 1980, when the building was boarded up and abandoned. Private development was floated as a possibility, but in 1986 the town, which had been leasing the lighthouse site to keep it available to the public, decided to ask the St. George Historical Society to take responsibility for restoring the keeper’s house for use as a museum, with a rental apartment upstairs for both income and security.

The society accepted the request and set up a subcommittee to raise the needed funds and oversee the restoration, which began in 1988. Because of the massive effort put into the project by people like Grethe Goodwin and Dana Smith, the museum was ready to open in 1990, swiftly becoming a popular town attraction as well as a repository of artifacts and materials documenting the history not only of the lighthouse property, but also of the town and its villages.

At this same time, two developments at the Town Office also proved helpful to the historical society’s efforts “to raise awareness of the richness of the historical significance of the town that wasn’t here before,” says Skoglund. First, the town hired John Falla, coincidentally an enthusiastic student of St. George history, to be its new town manager. And second, the town was planning to build a new Town Office, which opened the possibility for including a space that could be devoted to archiving historical documents, something Falla highly favored. Then, when the fire department addition was built a few years later, a long-term vault was added downstairs. Funding from the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum made it possible to get expert archival help and advice in managing existing and future historic holdings.

Since then materials germane to St. George’s history have continued to make their way into the Lighthouse Museum and the archive at the Town Office. “It’s amazing how much comes in from out of state,” Skogland observes. “Recently a woman from Colorado sent a package that contained a receipt from 1798 for my great, great, great grandfather’s tax bill. Imagine that coming back! Her aunt and uncle had lived in Wallston in the 1940s and 1950s and had collected stuff and couldn’t part with it. That stuff eventually came to her and she sent lots of it back.”

In 2002 the historical society was the grateful recipient of the historic 1805 Andrew Robinson House in Wiley’s Corner, the oldest documented house in that part of town, from the estate of Ruth Hazleton, whose mother was a Robinson. Along with the keeper’s house at Marshall Point, the Robinson House has become another highly visible reminder of the town’s historical roots. Regular programs on a wide range of aspects of St. George’s history—from the granite and shipbuilding industries to baseball and schools—along with facilitating the work of such researchers as Steven Sullivan and Robert Welsch (“Cemetery Inscriptions and Burial Sites of St. George, Maine and Nearby Islands”) and Marlene Groves (“Vital Records of St. George,” Maine Genealogical Society Special Publication No. 43) have been other ways Skoglund and his historical society partners have “helped keep the town’s history in the public focus,” as Skoglund puts it. In addition, the group worked in partnership with the town’s Conservation Commission to provide access to both Fort Point and to a portion of the trail going to Jones Brook.

While Skoglund, whose love of local history led him to pursue a 27-year career teaching geography and history to middle school students in Thomaston, believes that every aspect of St. George’s history is important, it is the Wiley’s Corner area of town—to him and most everyone who lives there this is the real “St. George”—about which he is especially knowledgeable and devoted.

As Skoglund explains, “You can only know with any depth [the history of] where you were brought up. So a person’s understanding of an area, a thorough understanding, is limited to a mile of where you live. I know this area—I was born here, brought up here, went to school here. And still within a mile of the Andrew Robinson house there are at least 20 households, including mine, descended from the person that lived in that particular house.” He then adds reflectively, “Everything about St. George history is of interest, but the names of the individuals [who lived elsewhere in town] I don’t remember very well. You remember the names of people you’ve heard many times. You don’t know the place if you haven’t roamed it as a child, burrowed around, pestered all the neighbors, listened to the stories.”

Perhaps, then, it is not so surprising that the idea behind starting an organization devoted to preserving and highlighting this town’s history began with a local man’s curiosity about a lost antique gun owned by a neighbor. —JW

PHOTO: Julie Wortman

Lessons from the road, the back woods and the neighbor’s yard

 Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Mostly mummified star-nosed mole

November is a tricky month for a nature observer in Maine. The problem is that you are supposed to wear orange because it is hunting season. Wearing bright colors in the woods does not allow for a close, calm approach to wildlife. But you know it’s only for a month, right? So what’s an observer to do? Hit the road of course!

Bicycle rides are full of natural history lessons year-round. And you know it’s fall in St. George when multiple preying mantii bodies are encountered on a single ride!

A few warm, non-windy days this month found this observer on the road and learning from some road kill. A dead ring-necked snake in November felt unfortunate­—how many days could there have been until it was to hibernate? It may have even been on its way to an overwintering burrow (so close!). The score of the day though, was a mostly mummified star-nosed mole! With long claws and short arms for digging, it was easy to see it was (had been) a mole, and upon closer inspection I could see a few remaining “fleshy tentacles” on its snout. I don’t cross paths with moles too often (dead or alive), so a find like this increases “mole awareness” dramatically. I often carry bags on my bike and needless to say this star-nosed mole is now on display in “the clubhouse” museum. No two bikes rides are ever the same and we like that!

Coyote claiming the compost

A simpler strategy for November nature observations, and one that requires minimal time in orange, is through the use of motion-triggered game cameras. These are the cameras that you put up in the woods where you find signs of wildlife, let the camera do the work for a couple of weeks and then come back to retrieve the memory stick and see what’s turned up. A basic ethical consideration, of course, is that it is a good idea to place cameras away from human trails (people don’t like being spied on in the woods) or anywhere hunters may pass. For this hunting season I focused my camera on a bucketful of compost I dumped just off our backyard field—an unlikely spot for hunters to be. It was no surprise to see photos of skunks and raccoons making repeated visits to the pile. One deer was so curious about the smell (or sound) of the camera that she stood in front of it, staring, seemingly forever. (That’s what deer do and that’s why they are prey). The highlight though, was a series of photos of a coyote (or ‘coy-dawg’) that took interest in the small heap. In the earliest photos, coyote eyes and silhouettes were limited to the background, but over time this one coyote couldn’t fight the temptation and urges that the smell of eggshells and coffee filters inspired. It took a while but the coyote completely overcame its initial shyness and marked the compost for its own! He just strolled on up, hunched his back and left a pile himself, essentially claiming vegetable bits as his own! So glad I put the camera up­—he can have the pile all he wants!

Muskrat at home in the neighbor’s pond

There also are times when wildlife comes to you, even when not attracted to discarded food bits. The other day I was backing up the truck when I spotted a brown lump across the street in the neighbor’s pond. I pointed it out to my son Leif at which time he exclaimed, “it’s moving!” And with that the lump went from stump to muskrat in a matter of moments. There is a healthy population of muskrats nearby in the Tenants Harbor marsh, especially in the northern stretches of the wetlands. But sightings and observations are few and far between. So now we keep a close eye on the pond, ready to observe whenever this “brown lump of a critter” appears, which happens a few times a day. No orange is required when using a spotting scope in your own driveway, and fortunately the pond is off to the side enough so it doesn’t appear that the scope is pointing at the neighbor’s house! That wouldn’t be very neighborly now would it? What is downright neighborly, however, is to provide muskrat habitat so my family can watch the chunky rodent’s activities! Thanks neighbors!

There is so much life to see throughout St. George that essentially giving up the woods for one twelfth of a year seems like a small sacrifice. We don’t stop observing though, we just change how and where we look a bit. We’ll see you out there!

PHOTOS: Kirk Gentalen

St. George ‘First-Grade Crew’ helps P.A.W.S.

During the month of October, St. George School’s First-Grade Crew—which consists of all first-grade students and their teachers—focused on completing a service project. First graders were inspired to help P.A.W.S. Animal Shelter, located in Camden, after meeting Oakley, a rescue pup who was adopted by Miss Betsy, one of the school’s bus drivers.

After brainstorming different ways to assist P.A.W.S. Animal Shelter, first graders agreed to host a pet supply drive at the school. Students created posters and stationed four collection stations around the school asking for donations of various supplies on P.A.W.S.’s wish list. First graders also wanted to provide the animals at P.A.W.S. with some homemade treats as well. Students baked homemade dog treats and sewed small cat toys to donate to the shelter.

To culminate the service project, the First-Grade Crew headed to P.A.W.S. to donate the supplies they had collected and the treats they had made. First graders were treated to a tour of the facility and got to peek at all of the animals. Our crew also participated in an animal craft and got to eat our lunch at the shelter!

“I liked when we got to peek in and see the dogs,” said Violet Bedell. And Bentley Robinson added, “I was very happy when we gave the donations to the animal shelter.”
—Meghan Smith (Smith is a first-grade teacher at the St. George School.)

PHOTO: Heather Weeks