The Orrington Historical Society is closing in on its goal to turn a former grange hall into a community center where residents can learn the town’s history, attend an outdoor concert or wedding, take part in a community supper or learn to garden.
All the group needs is another $75,000 to complete renovations, Keith Bowden, treasurer and project manager, said last week. The project, which reflects the love of the past but looks to the future as well, has been going on for more than five years.
The historical society purchased the former grange hall and its 1.5-acre lot, located on the Dow Road near the Center Drive intersection, in July 2017 for $3,000. The building, constructed in 1884, had no running water and needed major repairs.
Over the past 5½ years, the group has raised $225,000 and spent it on interior repairs and upgrades including digging a well and bringing water into the hall, constructing an addition for a handicapped-accessible bathroom and building a climate-controlled room to store historical records.
That figure includes thousands of dollars in in-kind donations of materials, expertise and labor, according to Bowden of Orrington.
The historical society needs the additional funds for installation of a water purification system, weatherization, resurfacing of the parking lot with a drainage system and the relocation of the Fairgrounds Building from Center Drive to Dow Road to display large exhibits, such as the town-owned horse-drawn hearse.
Plans also call for building a new amphitheater on the grounds for outdoor events, planting a small heritage apple orchard and garden area and implementing programming for children and adults.
Orrington has a rich history, with many paper records that have survived and need to be preserved, according to Judith Frost Gillis, president of the historical society and a retired English teacher.
It was the first town incorporated in Penobscot County in 1788, when Maine was still part of Massachusetts. Back then, it was known as New Worcester Plantation. Residents wanted the new community to be named Orangetown, but a mistake was made entering the name in the records and Orrington stuck, Bowden, 71, said last week.
“We never had a fire that destroyed records so we have them going back to when the town was part of Massachusetts,” Gillis said. “We need to properly preserve them for future generations.”
But those records had never been compiled in one place before the acquisition of the grange hall, she said. Some were in the town office, others were in a church basement. They also had not been digitally preserved.
Orrington is the home of multiple generations, according to Gillis, 72, formerly of Orrington but now of Bucksport. The Wiswell farm family goes back nine generations. Bowden’s family goes back five generations. Over the years, many of those families have given scrapbooks, photographs and personal papers to the historical society.
One thing few new residents to Orrington know is that it was home to the shipyard that constructed one of the last cargo schooners ships.
In July 1918, work started on the four-masted James E. Coburn. About 90 men were working on the ship with approximately 40 others supplying oak and pine planking from a nearby sawmill, according to information on the historical society’s website. It was commissioned during World War I, but the war ended before it was completed.
Bowden’s father and grandfather were part of a large crowd that gathered on July 19, 1919, for the launch of the ship into the Penobscot River. The ship got stuck halfway down the slides and was not launched successfully until several days later.
That turned out to be a bad omen for the Coburn. She sank nearly 10 years later off the coast of Bermuda.
“On April 1, 1929, she cleared Baltimore with a cargo of coal bound for Port de France, Martinique, and Port au Prince, Haiti, the account displayed at the historical society said. “Twelve days later she passed Cape Henry and on April 17, the “Coburn” was battling for her life in a terrible storm. Later during the day, she floundered beneath the waves.”
Nine of the crew were rescued after being adrift for more than a week without food or water. One crewman was lost.
The display about the history of the Coburn includes a large-scale model of the ship built by Earl Merrill.
Other displays include toys children would have played with in the 19th century and large tools used in shipbuilding. The kitchen, which has a modern industrial-sized stove, includes an array of utensils and tools used in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Four Orrington women donated dozens of now obsolete kitchen tools such as handheld beaters, graters and devices for dropping doughnut dough into hot oil.
Once the renovations are completed, the hope for the building’s future is that it will be a resource for local teachers and parents who want to share the town’s history with the next generation.
The historical society also believes it can serve the community as the grange hall did — a place to gather, share a meal, hear some music and swap stories.
Donations may be mailed to the Orrington Historical Society, P.O. Box 94, Orrington, ME 04474 or made securely online at GiveSendGo.com/OHS.