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PORTLAND — About 15 years after she was first introduced to the Abyssinian Meeting House, archaeologist Martha Pinello’s regard for its community is still growing.
“These were practiced tradespeople. No matter what, they knew what they were doing,” Pinello said Feb 15 while elaborating on newer finds from a second phase of excavations.
Pinello, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday night at the University of Southern Maine with John A. James, the project restoration architect, and Greg Farmer, the project historic architect, said the strength and industry of the African-American community that built the meeting house is evident in the collection of items found there.
The buttons, dishes, dolls, slate pencils and pieces of radiator show much about the people and the building that was completed in 1828 and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Pinello said she hopes community members will also be able to help identify or give greater detail about items that have been unearthed.
The meeting house, at 75 Newbury St., is the third-oldest in the country and recognized as a stop on the Underground Railroad to help African Americans escape slavery before the Civil War.
Pinello said the second phase of excavations behind the building’s rear wall showed her how resourceful the community was.
“It is my belief we are looking at people who got a really crappy piece of land,” she said. “They knew it was crappy, but it was theirs.”
Pinello’s research through old deeds and maps shows the land was wet and swampy. The history was evident during excavations, too.
“Water just pouring down the wall of the backside of the building,” she said.
But after erecting the building, meeting house members put the water to work.
“What we found in the back portion covered with rock is an elaborate water filtration system,” Pinello said.
Wooden boxes filled with sand and gravel were of a design dating to African societies, Pinello said. Research into where the water went continues, but some was used for drinking.
“At the meeting house, there was water to sell and they sold it from time to time,” Pinello said.
Some was also piped downhill to the Grand Trunk Railroad Station that stood at India and Fore streets, likely for use in the steam locomotives, perhaps to help heat the buildings.
Pinello said she doubts water in the building was used to soak the blankets William Wilberforce Ruby put on the roof to protect the building in the Great Fire of 1866, saying a nearby reservoir was the more likely source for that effort.
Attempts to restore the Abyssinian Meeting House have been going for more than 20 years, but the work has been done in fits and starts. Pinello began her work in 2005. In 2009, the city allocated $122,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding for roof repairs.
Last year, City Manager Jon Jennings contributed $36,000 in discretionary funds to help restore the building. The nonprofit Committee to Restore the Abyssinian Meeting House is looking to raise $1.5 million for a third phase of restoration.
While Pinello has dug up an indelible picture of the past at the meeting house, she has also learned the building is integral to the community’s future.
“(The city) is so fortunate to have a continuing black community,” she said. “What is true in Portland is not as true in New England. There are families who continued to live in and came back to Portland.”
The latest restoration work at Portland’s Abyssinian Meeting House, 75 Newbury St., reveals an intricate water filtration system that helped deal with swampy conditions.