Harpswell Day returns, to bring past to present

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HARPSWELL — “We have so many sensations; you should experience all of them.”

Dave Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, spoke as he held an old-fashioned hand planer he had just used to furl a strip of wood from a long plank that sat on a mid-1800s work bench.

Hackett, 63, is a strong advocate of the ways things used to be done.

“Technology robs you of sensation,” he said Sept. 16, adding that “the satisfaction of actually making something yourself … that is of value and is of use to you” is not only a pleasure, but a virtue.

On Oct. 1, from noon-4 p.m., people can see for themselves.

The Historical Society and the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust will revive long lost skills during the long-lost tradition of Harpswell Day, a celebration of subsistence living and town heritage.

Originally a social gathering for the town, Harpswell Day began in the mid-1940s, but disappeared in the mid-1970s. Hackett and HHLT spokesperson Julia McLeod hope to make it an annual event again, and this year’s will feature tours, re-enactments, music, and demonstrations of traditional subsistence skills and handcrafts.

Activities will take place across the Historical Society’s four sites:

• The museum, where McLeod encourages visitors to try their hand at weaving, spinning wool, using hand tools, and pressing cider.

• Centennial Hall, where, among the demonstrations, there will be food for sale by the Harpswell Coastal Academy.

• The Meeting House, which will feature live music.

• And the 16-by-20-foot, one-room schoolhouse from 1824, where an ongoing re-enactment of teaching methods will take place as it did 200 years ago.

Hackett said “a lot of learning had to do with survival” back then, and, in addition to reading and math, students would learn about growing and fishing for their own food. Hackett said he found a period textbook that asked students to calculate the tonnage of a vessel.

“The idea of a store or a grocery store in this day and age was very different than what you would have found then,” he said, when Harpswell’s economy was “pretty quiet,” and people sustained on what they could grow and make at home.

This was only supplemented by a semi-annual trip families would take by steamboat to Portland to pick up a barrel of flour and sugar, “a major purchase of the year,” Hackett said.

But Hackett seemed most excited about the visitors’ chance to see the Meeting House.

Built in 1758 and designated as a National Historic Landmark – “the highest honor a building can have,” Hackett said – the two-story, acoustically superior building was originally used to hold church services for Harpswell’s approximately 900 residents.

Attending church was a major part of the colonists lives, and without a local place to worship, parishioners would have to travel miles by land and sea to the nearest church, in what was known as Ancient North Yarmouth, Hackett said.

“(The Meeting House) was a large part of the reason Harpswell exists as a town,” he said.

There will also be attractions in outdoor spaces. Hackett will give tours of the cemetery behind the Meeting House, and Two Coves Farm will bring in sheep for a petting area at the Society’s Cattle Pound.

Two hundred years ago, the Cattle Pound was where the town collected stray cattle that had wandered off private property; their owners would come to the pound and pay a fee to reclaim their cows, much like paying the fine for a car that’s been towed.

Hackett chuckled at the analogy, as if to acknowledge how much times have changed – and how much they haven’t.

Callie Ferguson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or cferguson@theforecaster.net. Follow Callie on Twitter: @calliecferguson.

David Hackett, president of the Harpswell Historical Society, holds a hand planer from the mid-1800s, one of the hand tools featured at the upcoming revival of Harpswell Day on Oct. 1.

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Reporter on the Brunswick/Harpswell beat. Proud Bowdoin grad that you can find reporting on municipal, school, and community news, or inside the many coffee and sandwich shops around the Midcoast. Callie can be reached at 207-781-3661 ext. 100.