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Maine History Online
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Culture & Community

Then followed a most charming surprise. William mastered his timidity and began to sing. His voice was a little faint and frail like the family daguerreotypes, but … I had never heard 'Home Sweet Home' sung as touchingly… [t] he old mother joined him and they sang together … Mrs. Todd kept time visibly, and sometimes audibly, with her ample foot. ... It was…a great pleasure. –– Sarah Orne Jewett (1896)

They used to run from Indian Island to Lincoln Island…which is thirty miles, and be there by lunch, so we had to try it, too. We got there by supper, but we got there. This was the impetus for what some of you may know as the "Katahdin 100." –– Barry Dana (2004)

Resourcefulness, tradition, and a consciousness of identity are hallmarks of community spirit. This notion of communal self resides in towns, neighborhoods, organizations, and institutions large and small. From Granges and church groups, to community festivals and town meetings, Maine throughout its history has exhibited an abundant sense of community and cultural opportunities.

Early Maine residents who lived in proximity to one another communicated face to face. They congregated in churches and taverns, met along streets and piers, and spoke to, or ignored, one another in person. Broadsides, newspapers, and other devices mediated and expanded communal spaces, but the legacy of community as shared time and place has persisted in Maine.

Small Town Habits

In many ways the story of Maine is in the history of its small towns, where people often come together over common economic and social interests as well as proximity to one another and distance from other communities. Traditional activities like barn-raisings and quilting bees brought people together as did churches, schools, and the more prosaic activities such as meeting over pie and lunch at the annual town meeting.

The notion of community, held especially dear by residents of small towns, is sometimes as much myth as reality as income, religion, age, and other differences often separate people in cities and towns of all sizes. Nevertheless, activities such as those already mentioned help to bring people together across the differences, even if temporarily.

Well aware of the transformative experience common delights can provide, Sarah Orne Jewett described a community picnic organized around a family reunion in The Country of the Pointed Firs:

To call it a picnic would make it seem trivial. The great tables were edged with pretty oak-leaf trimming, which the boys and girls made. We brought flowers from the fence-thickets of the great field; and out of the disorder of flowers and provisions suddenly appeared as orderly a scheme for the feast as the marshal had shaped for the procession… As I looked up and down the tables there was a good cheer, a grave soberness that shown with pleasure, a humble dignity of bearing… The feast was a noble feast.

The event included pastries creatively made and elegantly displayed, family anecdotes, appropriate speeches, and many affectionate reminiscences. Evoking more than just the simple pleasures of the past, Jewett crafted her narrative around country traditions that meant much to the participants themselves.

Town festivals or celebrations have long been popular ways to promote a sense of community and community identity. Some of these take the form of "Old Home Days," which often feature school reunions, old-fashioned games and events, and other activities.

The impetus often is an idealized past – memories of a simpler time or "friendlier" community – and hopes for the future. The organizers of Old Home Days in Harrison describe their mission: "to create a feeling of community spirit in the manner of a small New England village and work together to raise funds for various community projects."

The governor of neighboring New Hampshire in 1899 urged "old home day" celebrations, saying he was concerned about the decline of the small town. He wanted communities to set aside a time for residents, both past and present, to re-unite to keep the towns alive.

Some cities, towns and villages take a more topical approach to an annual activity that builds community spirit – and enhances revenues.

Festivals might celebrate crops – the Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, Rockland Lobster Festival, Yarmouth Clam Festival and Fort Fairfield Potato Blossom Festival, or dozens of strawberry festivals, for example.

Ethnic festivals also are popular in many communities. La Kermesse, a festival celebrating Biddeford's Franco American community, for instance, is held every June. Lewiston-Auburn and Waterville also hold Franco-American festivals.

Greek Orthodox churches in Saco, Portland, and Lewiston hold annual Greek festivals. The Maine Highland Games each August brings the Scottish community together. Other ethnic festivals are held throughout the state as well.

Festivals also might celebrate seasonal events like end-of-summer or fall harvests at the Blue Hill Fair, Common Ground Fair, Freyburg Fair, among dozens of others; or events like snowfall with numerous winter carnivals or snofests.

And, of course, the Chester Greenwood Day celebration each December in Farmington honors the man who invented earmuffs. Then there is the charitable if truly weird Black Fly Breeders Association, a Machias organization that rhapsodizes the black fly on T-shirts and bumper stickers for good causes.

Not all communities are bounded geographically. Others revolve around work tasks or particular recreational activities. A number of waterfront communities hold annual Blessing of the Fleet ceremonies for fishing boats and other commercial craft. In the 19th century observances of lighting the candles (later the electric lights) in factories in the fall and blowing them out in the spring were celebrated with balls or other events.

Civic and Social Customs

Since most towns were founded, they have held town meetings – often in March. John Gould described the New England town meeting in 1940: "The whole family comes – mother and father to vote, and the children to listen and learn how. Town Meeting Day begins after chores – the moderator is sometimes chosen as early as six-thirty.

"Events move on with balloting in the forenoon, dinner, appropriations in the afternoon, supper at six, and a Town Meeting dance at night. Commerce, industry, and schooling stop."

In its earlier incarnations, town meeting business was conducted by men; food provided by women. Children played and observed. When women got the right to vote nationally in 1920, they began voting at town meetings as well.

Gould wrote: "Absolute independence characterized Town Meeting. No one tells a Yankee how to vote, no one dictates; and only another Yankee can persuade."

As towns have grown and populations diversified, many communities have replaced the traditional town meetings with other forms of municipal government.

Lura Beam, in A Maine Hamlet, which captures the seasonal amusements of small-town Marshfield during the early years of the 20th century, notes that while the fairs, picnics, and camp meetings of turn-of-the-century Marshfield were, indeed, more popular than the existing civic organizations, the community was not sustained by those alone, but tempered by "the self perpetuated certain social beliefs and codes, held by everybody… first, individualism; second, the continuity of customs approved by long experience."

These often conflicted, or were at least in tension, with one another; to run athwart community customs in the pursuit of individualism was to test the limits of membership in the community. Social customs reinforced values like frugality, economy, industriousness, orderliness, and cleanliness, while institutions like marriage, church, and school, supported the entirety.

In keeping with the virtues of thrift and economy, the worlds of duty and pleasure often converged in small towns. Well-known author of Charlotte's Web and Stuart Little, E. B. White also wrote about his life on a Maine farm for The New Yorker.

One article featured a chimney fire gone cold, and the sense of home community that prevailed when the firefighters answered the canceled call anyway: "In the country, one excuse is as good as another for a bit for fun, and just because a fire has grown cold is no reason for a fireman's spirits to sag."

White was as delighted to see the firemen, as they were to see each other. The sheer camaraderie of the event inspired White to claim it as "one of the pleasantest" homecomings he had ever experienced.

Difference and Belonging

There were, of course, varieties of experience in smaller communities, particularly as immigrant groups brought their own flair and flavors to small-town life. Maine's largest ethnic group by far is of French descent, usually through migration from nearby Canadian provinces.

Early Acadians settled along the St. John River Valley; while many were forced to flee following English victory during colonial wars, they nonetheless influenced cultural development in the area and now constitute a majority population in places like Fort Kent and Madawaska.

Leaving Quebec in the midst of an agricultural crisis later in the 19th century, anxious and hopeful French Canadians brought with them music, dance, Catholicism, language, and food traditions to enliven the textile mill and industrial towns of Lewiston-Auburn, Waterville, Dexter, Rumford, and Biddeford.

The transition was not always smooth. Relocation challenged their Quebecois heritage and sense of community as assimilation vied with cultural tradition for dominance. While public schools and mills integrated the newcomers through English language immersions, churches and kinship sustained vital traditions through familiar Catholic rituals, foodways, and recreations.

Interestingly, their participation in civic organizations and sports teams in places like Dexter, for example, served both to preserve social solidarity, and to Americanize Franco-American individuals.

No matter where they are, small towns are as much determined by what they lack – or avoid – as by what they have.

Cultural Expressions

Maine's natural attractions and location have inspired artists and writers as well as outdoors enthusiasts. But cultural expressions in the state go beyond writers and artists to include theater, dance, music, and more. Cultural institutions have been found in communities of all sizes across the state.

Sally Sayward Barrell Keating Wood (1759-1855) became Maine's first novelist when she published Julia and the Illuminated Baron in 1800. A widow with three children, she wrote five novels for which she received acclaim, although the books were published anonymously.

Known as Madam Wood, she became active in Wiscasset community life after her second marriage, to Gen. Abiel Wood.

She is followed by innumerable novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, journalists and other writers – some of whom write about places and people distant, some based closer to home and reflecting the values and physical surroundings of the state.

Some of Maine's best-known writers have focused on their home state, at least to some degree. Sarah Orne Jewett (1801-1887) captured the sense of small towns and especially the women in them. Gladys Hasty Carroll (1919-1999) wrote about farm life in Maine and the pull of a more urban existence in As the Earth Turns.

Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) wrote historical novels, many of which focused on Maine and New England. Stephen King (1947- ), one of Maine's most prolific authors, has set some of his novels in Maine, but his appeal and his settings have gone far beyond the state's borders.

There are many more writers whose works or whose lives have become connected to Maine and helped create Maine's identity. Part of that identity is as a state where arts and artists are integral to the life of many communities, where individualism and individual expression are encouraged, and where residents and visitors help support artistic endeavors.

Visual artists such as John Brewster Jr., Frederic Mellen, Andrew Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, John Marin, Franklin Simmons, Rufus Porter, Marguerite and William Zorach, Dahlov Ipcar, Berenice Abbott, and Marsden Hartley have worked and thrived in Maine.

Especially those artists who have used Maine's landscapes and people to inspire their work have spread an image of the state, sometimes romanticized, that has helped draw others or fixed a particular idea about Maine – the rugged coast, the woods, rural communities – in the imagination.

Artists' colonies that began in the late 19th century, most notably in Ogunquit and Monhegan Island, furthered the visual image of Maine. Artists painted homes, people, and seascapes, capturing not only the scenery of Maine, but also the light, and the way of life along Maine's long Atlantic coastline.

Towns often sought to affirm their cultural identities by building music, art, historical, and theater venues and forming organizations to promote the arts. Some institutions were launched in the late 18th century, but many formed during the more prosperous 19th century.

Many of the first cultural institutions were situated in Portland: a theater, which opened in 1794, and Columbian Hall, which hosted a variety of popular attractions early in the 19th century (including "Old Bet," the elephant), were among them.

In Madison, the Lakewood Theater opened in 1898, one of the many attractions built by trolley companies to promote ridership on their lines. Lakewood has the distinction of being the oldest summer stock theater in the U.S. At other trolley parks, in Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Brunswick, and many other locations, music and theater flourished.

In towns throughout the state, community bands that formed in the 19th century and sometimes went off to war also served as entertainment at town events and as venues for teaching music, mostly to young boys. Portland's Rossini Club began in 1869 as a women's musical society. The New England Music Camp in Sidney opened in 1937.

Towns of all sizes built opera houses at the end of the 19th century. The Camden Opera House, for example, built in 1894 and once the tallest building in Knox County, hosted operas, town meetings, and other community events. When moving pictures arrived, it hosted those, too.

George Adams, who designed and built opera houses throughout northern New England, built the Waterville Opera House on the second floor of the city hall.

In 1894, Bowdoin College completed work on its Museum of Art, although its collection of painting and other works had been growing since 1811. Each of Maine's major universities has an art museum, many created in the mid 20th century.

The Portland Society of Art, which formed in 1882, split into the Portland Museum of Art and the Portland School of Art (later Maine College of Art). Both have long been focal points for teaching and exhibiting art in southern Maine.

The Abbe Museum opened in Bar Harbor in 1928. It was the first institution in Maine to sponsor archaeological research and has a large collection of Maine archaeological materials and Wabanaki art, especially baskets.

Dozens of other museums, galleries, community theater companies, musical ensembles and orchestras, many with long histories, are part of large and small communities across the state.

Summer institutes like the Stonecoast Writers Conference at Freeport, the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts on Deer Isle, the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and the Bates College Dance Festival each gained wide renown for the quality of their staff and programs.

Indeed, the arts and humanities and their related institutions have brought such vibrancy to communities that, even amidst the economic and industrial decline of the last century, an impressive number and variety of cultural structures were built, and institutions organized, across the state.

Religion and Community

Churches and taverns were among the first public institutions erected in colonial New England communities.

Churches served as meetinghouses where town business was conducted, as gathering places for other community functions, and as sites of religious services and education. Hymns, sermons, and Bible readings helped to uphold the political, economic, social, and legal expectations of their communities.

Protestants and Catholics vied for the loyalty of Maine residents as soon as colonists began arriving in the area. The French set up missions, mostly in the northern and eastern sections of the state, and converted much of the native population to Roman Catholicism. Later, in the 19th century, Roman Catholic churches were established across the state, serving the needs of immigrants from French Canada, Ireland, Italy, and other parts of the United States.

The Puritan church and its successor, the Congregational Church, dominated much of the southwestern part of Maine, as it did Massachusetts Bay colony, which required towns to support a Congregational church and minister. But Maine's roots of settlement were more entrepreneurial than religious. That fact, along with the frontier nature of Maine, including the many new residents, may have accounted for the multiplicity of religious expressions and the presence of many radical religious groups, especially after the American Revolution.

Revivals were common in Maine at the end of the 18th century. Itinerant preachers brought the Free Will Baptists, the Methodists, the Universalists, and the Shakers all offered messages of hope and salvation in uncertain social and economic times.

The state has drawn some less enduring religious groups as well: Millerites who predicted the second coming of Christ in 1843, Cochranites, founded in Saco in the early 19th century, a form of communal society that believed in polygamy; the Jaffa Colony, a group of people mostly from Washington County who went to the Holy Land in 1886 to wait for Christ's second coming and to set up a colony there; and Shiloh or the Kingdom, founded by Frank Sandford in Durham in 1893, which believed in divine healing.

Most of the more unusual religious communities and beliefs were relatively short-lived. Some were accepted, some adherents were taken to court or otherwise driven away.

Although a handful of Jews were present in the colonial period, most arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. The synagogues and cemeteries they created remain visible elements in the landscape marking the continued presence of Jewish communities.

Both in Bangor, Beth Israel synagogue was built in 1888, while Beth El was established in 1982, nearly a century later. Biddeford's Etz Chaim synagogue was founded in 1906. Others exist in Lewiston, Old Orchard Beach, Bath, Waterville, Augusta, and of course, Portland.

Albanian and Turkish immigrants who worked in Biddeford's mills formed the first Muslim mosque in the state in 1900. Immigrants to Maine also brought Hinduism and Buddhism, mostly in the 20th century.

The earliest mosque is gone, but some of Maine’s most recent arrivals practice Islam. Many came from east Africa, and immigrated to the United States in part to escape the persistent violence of regional conflict. They concentrated in Maine’s urban areas, forced out of their homes in Somalia and the Sudan, especially, because of late 20th century and 21st century strife in those areas.

With the immigrants and their religion came a culture and community rooted in both religious and secular traditions.

Often marginalized or ignored by dominant society, immigrant and African American communities created separate institutions that both paralleled those of the white communities, and established distinctive cultural identities for their constituencies. Portland, Bangor, Augusta, and Lewiston possess most of the larger churches and civic and service societies that were organized in part to help sustain and celebrate community identity for their members.

All of the religious communities – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and others – have brought traditions and community based in rituals and celebrations, food, music and other cultural expressions.

Perhaps the best known of the communal religious groups in Maine in the late 18th and 19th centuries is the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing or the Shakers, as they came to be called because of the physicality of their worship.

They arrived in the North American colonies in the 1770s and spread throughout New York, New England, westward into Kentucky, Indiana, and Ohio, and southward into Georgia and Florida within a few decades.

Their sexual abstinence, gender segregation, and withdrawal from the wider society set them apart from the rapidly industrializing and urbanizing America of the 19th century. Their rural self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial spirit often overcame the suspicions of their neighbors as they settled into communities organized around "families" of carefully and ritually controlled members dedicated to a faith of practical purpose — work, charity, utility, self-reliance, and simplicity.

Maine hosted three Shaker communities with a shared membership of a several hundred. Arriving in Maine early in the 1780s they settled in the somewhat isolated areas of Alfred, Gorham, and Sabbathday Lake (then called Thompson's Pond) at New Gloucester.

Their religious underpinnings and related practices sustained these communities and generally kept them focused on their mission – creating a heaven on earth for the elect.

Believing in a community of goods as well as of souls, Shakers shared all material supplies, lived in group housing, cared for the aged and infirm as part of their service ethic, and offered both security and leadership possibilities to resident Believers.

Nearly all Shaker communities suffered a decline after the Civil War. The Shakers of Alfred turned over their land and buildings to a Christian brotherhood during the early years of the Depression, and moved to New Gloucester to join the remaining members of the Sabbathday Lake community. Sabbathday Lake remains the only active community of Shakers in the country.

Culture of Memory

While the Shakers were inveterate record keepers, they also used songs, rituals, and "spirit drawings" to preserve and communicate larger meanings. Native peoples relied heavily on participatory visual –– dances, rituals, sacred colors and patterns – and oral – songs, chants, prayers, and stories --– communications for sustaining their societies and for transmitting their cultural traditions.

The Maine landscape, as well, was more than just a location for material resources, it was also marked by sacred spaces like Mount Katahdin in the interior and petroglyph sites along the coast whose use and meaning have remained culturally significant even if a full understanding eludes scholars.

Organized around villages, clans, and hunting bands, Native Americans also sponsored warrior societies, competitions, communal festivals, and political organizations. Games and other pursuits tested individual abilities and reinforced group traditions. Micmac, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet peoples gambled for sport (one game was played with flat dice, a wooden bowl, and counting sticks for keeping score).

Maine Indians occasionally hosted friendly athletics contests, like lacrosse, amongst neighboring bands designed to showcase skills, such as endurance and accuracy, needed in hunting and war.

Community bonding derived from the small size of native societies, their interdependence, and coherent traditions. For the Wabanaki peoples, maintaining traditions amidst the complications of European settlement, subsequent wars, and near complete marginalization by the United States and the state of Maine necessitated a commitment to identity of heroic proportions.

But it also worked the other way around — native traditions sustained the people, providing a core around which to reconstitute their society, and a cause that committed them to a future more secure than their recent past.

Non-native populations also have relied on oral traditions, along with many other tools, to remember the past and use it for present needs – keeping communities together, enforcing social norms, and coping with changing situations.

Old Home Days celebrations work to preserve a community's sense of community and repackage the past, not only as nostalgia, but also as a useable base for the future. Monuments and statues to soldiers, to heroes and heroines, and, sometimes, to ordinary citizens who are emblematic of the community also frame past experiences for current and future generations.

The monuments, and often parades on patriotic holidays, help to steer historical memory to particular narratives that can serve to set limits on a community's identity and the behavior of individuals within it.

Memory is preserved in many other ways as well – written and visual accounts, lectures, movies, activities of historical societies, and many more. The cultural, religious, social, and educational institutions Mainers form all contribute in various ways to the construction of memory as well as to community.