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