BELFAST, Maine — Megan Pinette knows more about Belfast history than just about anybody else, but she didn’t grow up hearing the stories and lore of the 7,000-person midcoast city.
Instead, the longtime president of the Belfast Historical Society and curator of the Belfast Museum, is from Queens, New York, about as different from a small Maine city as you can get. But in retrospect, Pinette’s upbringing helped put her on that path. In the 1950s, her family spent a lot of time in the city’s museums: the American Museum of Natural History, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Met Cloisters.
“Being in a museum is very comfortable for me,” Pinette, 69, said this week.
After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts degree from the Hartford Art School, she and her husband, artist Dennis Pinette, moved to Belfast in 1983. It was during a time of transition for the city, which was in the last years of its chicken processing industry.
Although nowadays, properties in the desirable downtown area sell quickly, and for sums of money that seem eye-watering to old-timers, that was not the case back then. The young couple was able to buy a big, dilapidated house near the water for just $19,000.
Settled firmly in Belfast, the Pinettes had a ringside seat for the transformation of the city from its industrial chicken industry past to the thriving, even gentrified, tourist destination it has become today.
But as a newcomer and then a busy mom beginning in 1988, Pinette didn’t necessarily understand what the changes happening around her meant to the generational residents of the city. That began to change in the late 1990s, when she volunteered to help with her son’s fifth-grade class.
“The teacher said, ‘Well, we’re thinking of doing Belfast history.’ And I said, ‘Oh, OK. I know nothing, but let’s see what we can do.’ And I really didn’t know how to teach children, so it became more my own interest.”
Pinette dived in, reading about local history and the fascinating people who had lived in the city.
“So that led me into Grove Cemetery, and I’m walking around and reading these gravestones and I’m going, ‘How come we don’t talk about these people? How come I don’t know about these people?’”
There was Nathan Read, an early engineer and inventor who was an innovator in steamboat, windmill, waterpower and threshing technologies, who died in Belfast in 1849. There was John Cochran, who participated in the Boston Tea Party, two former governors of Maine and Civil War veterans aplenty.
Her interest was piqued, and she wanted to find out more. Pinette got in touch with a member of the historical society, who pointed her in the direction of a very old woman in town who was near death but still had all her faculties — and memories. That woman gave Pinette an overview of Belfast’s history.
Not long after that, Pinette was given the key to the museum building, which lacked a website, operating hours and even a telephone. And what happened next won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has volunteered for anything in Maine.
“The next thing I know, I’m on the board and I’m secretary, and then, you know, a year and a half later, I’m president,” she said.
She and the society’s volunteers got to work, cleaning out the barn next to the museum in downtown Belfast and assessing what was there. She and a couple of others took a museology course offered by the University of Maine and joined the professional association Maine Archives & Museums.
The Belfast Historical Society and Museum was on its way to being modernized, but it was a big process. Instead of the tidily organized exhibits, photographs and boxes of archived documents that are there now, it was more casual, Pinette said.
A lot more casual.
“There were plastic garbage bags full of photographs and letters,” she said. “And the whole building was full of three-drawer bureaus. The top drawer would have a hammer, push pins and a tape measure. And then the bottom drawers would be photographs and papers and books.”
It was a treasure hunt and a challenge, and Pinette and the volunteers and interns were up to it. One man spent 15 years making sense of the archive material, organizing documents and creating a card catalog system. They created permanent exhibits out of the objects and began to put together presentations that would bring Belfast history to life.
“It’s been really over the last 20 years that the museum has finally come into itself, and then entered the digital world,” Pinette said.
The pandemic, which slashed museum visitation to a tenth of what it normally is in the summer of 2020, has been a challenge. But she’s delighted that the world seems back on a more normal footing this summer.
Pinette is again sharing her love of the community’s history, including by offering hour-long walking tours at 10 a.m. Fridays through July and August. The tour groups meet at the Belfast Chamber of Commerce information office at 14 Main Street, and she asks those interested to make a $10 donation to the Belfast Historical Society.
On the tours, Pinette shares tidbits about Belfast history, events and architecture, and true to form doesn’t shy away from more recent issues that have shaped the city, including the fight over Walmart that roiled the community in the early 2000s and the loss of the chicken processing plants. Pinette will be giving a presentation about the changing industrial waterfront between 1980 and 1990 at 7 p.m. Monday, July 25 at the Abbott Room of the Belfast Free Library.
“I’m starting to understand a little bit of the angst of what’s happened here in town, with losing the industries,” she said. “I’m extremely sympathetic.”