Seafaring history is more than ships and sailors.
A new permanent exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport aims to tell the broader stories of the Maine sea captains, sailors, captains’ wives and families and those who worked at home to support the maritime industry.
The exhibit, “At Home, At Sea: Searsport’s Maritime Stories,” fills the rooms of the Fowler-True-Ross House, a Federal-style home from the early 19th century that is part of the museum’s campus. Previously, the home was furnished with generic Victorian furniture that did not do much to explain Searsport’s special relationship with the sea, according to Cipperly Good, the curator of maritime history.
That’s all changed. In the bedrooms, there are antique nautical charts that Searsport captains used to navigate from one port to another, with faint pen lines tracing the route of journeys made long ago. The parlor is full of evocative souvenirs brought home from Asia and other faraway lands, including a turtle caught at the mouth of a river in South America, bamboo chairs from China, a writing desk from Japan and much more.
“You had to bring something back for the wives and mothers,” Good said. “You could really furnish your New England home with these gorgeous things from abroad … In a way, we were really more connected with the world as Mainers in the 19th century, because people’s jobs were to pick up cargo and go to other ports.”
The museum began to put the exhibit together for the 2020 celebration of Maine’s bicentennial and Searsport’s 175th birthday, but the pandemic put a two-year hold on those plans.
“I hope [museum-goers] get to learn about the people behind those sea captains’ houses, just making them human,” she said. “And putting reality to the romanticism that we have of the Golden Age of Sail.”
That is the time from the mid-19th to early 20th century when the world’s trade relied on huge wooden sailboats, many of which were built in Maine shipyards and manned by Maine sailors. No town was more connected to the sea than Searsport. Despite its small population — around 2,000 people — it produced more than 500 merchant captains during those decades. Some captains took their wives and families with them on their voyages, but other wives chose to stay at home to raise their children with the comforts of the mainland.
Searsport also had 11 shipyards in its harbor during those years, and many of the ordinary seamen who served on sailing ships hailed from the town and surrounding areas.
Though fortunes could be made while plying the seas, danger was a constant companion, too. The exhibit does not shy away from tragic sea stories of boats sunk in storms and men and women who died while at sea.
“Sons and nephews would apprentice with dads and uncles, which is a good thing,” Good said. “But you can wipe out a family if a ship goes down.”
A portrait of a pretty young girl in an elaborate white wedding gown was actually painted after her death at age 22 while honeymooning on her husband’s ship. Her sister donned the dress to pose for the painter.
There’s also an American flag with 38 stars that was rescued from a shipwreck in Kobe Harbor, Japan, and a masterful rendition of a grim Victorian artform done by a local woman: a hair wreath, made from the hair of deceased loved ones.
But not all the stories told by the objects are sad. Among the paintings of ships and the exotic souvenirs is a joyous, humble line sketch that is just as relatable now as it was 150 years ago. A proud captain used his navigation chart to mark the spot in the Pacific Ocean — somewhere south of the Tropic of Cancer and east of Easter Island — where his wife gave birth to their daughter.
“Hope gave birth to a young Hopefull,” the captain wrote next to a spritely stick figure drawing of a smiling man.
Being able to share such intimate glimpses of the past with today’s visitors is part of why Good loves her job.
“When you see the objects, the person [comes to life] again, and it’s great to make that connection,” Good said. “I think their stories can inspire us to take adventures and think about the jobs we’re doing and the legacy they will have.”
The Penobscot Marine Museum will open for the season at 10 a.m. Friday, May 27. Visitors can check out “At Home, At Sea” in the Fowler-True-Ross House by guided tours only.