Community volunteer Christina Kane-Gibson of Caribou describes an exhibit at the Caribou Historical Center & Museum dedicated to military service. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — No matter where Caribou natives settle down, many remember the small city’s hometown feel.

That sense of home is what the newest volunteers of the Caribou Historical Center & Museum want to capture when they reopen exhibits to the public later this year.

If the group succeeds, Caribou will once again have a historical center to draw in local visitors and tourists. An active local history museum is crucial for helping younger generations appreciate their hometown and their families’ contributions, said museum volunteer and Caribou resident Tom Kane.

“A kid could look at our museum’s list of soldiers, see someone from their family on there and want to learn where their family name comes from,” Kane said.

Both the historical center and the city-owned Nylander Museum of Natural History have been closed for three years, since before the pandemic. That has left local students without a way to explore the city’s history in a more interactive, personal way.

The Caribou Historical Society formed as a nonprofit in 1975 and purchased the land on 1033 Presque Isle Road that now contains a log cabin museum building, a replica 1860s school house and a barn and garage with more exhibits. For decades, the historical center remained open thanks to consistent volunteer effort, until the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered community events in 2020.

Volunteers Tom Kane (right) and Donna Murchison admire a mural painted by the late Caribou resident Winfred Martin. The mural is one of thousands of artifacts at the Caribou Historical Center & Museum that volunteers hope to one day display. Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

The 2021 death of Dennis Harris, the center’s curator and office manager, further stalled plans to reopen. For 15 years, Harris had been instrumental in digitally cataloging the center’s 8,000 artifacts and helping to run events. During COVID and after his death, many volunteers lost interest and the museum’s doors stayed closed.

But the wheels have begun turning again thanks to six new volunteers: Caribou residents Kane and daughter Christina Kane-Gibson, Donna Murchison, Stephanie Madore, Presque Isle resident Dennis Koch and former Caribou librarian Anastasia Weigle.

Kane-Gibson began volunteering last summer when the center’s seven-member board of directors resumed meetings. She originally wanted to help with marketing but soon realized the center’s log cabin museum needed much more work before it could reopen.

“We had all these cool artifacts in glass display cases,” Kane-Gibson said. “We took everything out of the cases, so people could actually see them. It really opened up the space.”

Volunteers plan to set public hours this summer. When people finally step through the doors again, they’ll see exhibits dedicated to early medical advancements, the Mi’kmaq Nation, Caribou churches and quilts that date back to the Civil War.

A favorite exhibit of Kane-Gibson’s is one dedicated to Caribou High School, from which she graduated in 1997. Visitors can see basketball jerseys, sports photographs, diplomas and graduation books dating back to the 1920s.

The exhibit inspired a recent collaboration with Caribou Community School.

Eighth-grade students are creating podcasts that will tell the stories behind the artifacts and share knowledge passed down from former Caribou teachers. Museum visitors can listen to the podcasts on tablets at each exhibit.

Kane-Gibson and teacher Kim Barnes got the idea for the podcasts after viewing school artifacts at the museum.

“Kim is my son’s teacher. We were looking through all this cool stuff one day and thinking of how we could get kids back here,” Kane-Gibson said.

Another display includes uniforms, helmets, rifles and photographs from Caribou residents who served in the Civil War, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. A roll call lists all the known Caribou natives and residents who served in those conflicts.

Credit: Melissa Lizotte / Aroostook Republican

Before it officially reopens, the museum needs many more volunteers, including docents and event coordinators. The board of directors also seeks one more member.

The current crop of volunteers is already seeing a solid public response.

A recent Sip & Paint event featuring Washburn artist Filomena Irving and a Perham-based tea company was a sold-out hit. The volunteers and board want to host more events, including speed dating, senior citizen gatherings, school field trips and “Decades Dances,” the latter featuring music and costumes from a chosen decade.

The group hopes more attention on the museum will lead to the reopening of the school house replica, barn, garage and adjacent walking trail.

Downstairs at the log cabin museum sit thousands of photos, with clothing, furniture, equipment and other artifacts that could be included in exhibits on the businesses, industries and people that define Caribou’s story.

Most of all, Kane-Gibson said, future visitors will gain a greater understanding of why so many people still claim Caribou as their “forever hometown.”

“I lived in Texas for years, but I never said I was from Texas. I always said, ‘I live in Austin, but I’m from Caribou, Maine,'” Kane-Gibson said. “There’s something about Caribou that makes you feel connected to the place, and we want to capture that.”