BATH — It was the night of Sept. 3, 1883, and Constable William “Uncle Billy” Lawrence was walking his downtown beat, checking businesses along Front Street.
Three burglars were on the run, one of whom ran into the arms of 63-year-old Lawrence, who asked the man, Daniel Wilkenson, what he was doing. Desperate to escape, Wilkenson fired his .32-caliber revolver into Lawrence’s face, killing the constable and escaping.
Wilkenson was ultimately tried and convicted on Jan. 7, 1884, and sentenced to death at the Maine State Prison the following year. In 1887, largely as a result of Wilkenson’s hanging, Maine abolished the death penalty.
It may not be a pleasant tale, but it is one of many anecdotes that adorn the rich tapestry of Bath’s history. Thanks to a project to place historical markers in about 40 areas in the city, those stories should continue to educate and entertain residents and visitors for years to come.
Jay Paulus, who runs the Paulus Design Group and is participating in the project, was trained in architecture and has delved into interpretive and museum designs. “I love history, and find that these projects all are like history in a different way,” Paulus said.
Erika Helgerson, Bath’s community relations coordinator, enlisted Paulus. While other communities have created something akin to “history on a plaque,” Paulus explained, Bath is in store for something different.
“The goal here is to really design these so that they’re landscaped, they’re part of the environment, and then they tell a story,” he said.
About half the markers are planned to be in or near downtown. Paulus said organizers and the city “really want to make sure that this is not just two or three historic signs that get put up on a wall. It’s more than that. So I think that’s why my office was called in (to design the signs), because they want these to be signature pieces, they want them to be very interactive … almost little hands-on learning stations.”
He said a typical sign might post a “did you know” question. The viewer might flip something or turn something on the marker to reveal the answer. The marker could point the viewer to several other signs in order to complete the story, leading that person to other areas of the city in search of the other segments. The signs might also visually connect, so that a viewer who sees one is compelled to look at another.
The markers “may tie together, like a family,” Paulus said. “Bath has a lot of great little stories that can easily be told.”
The longtime family names in Bath and the city’s strong shipbuilding theme are other elements that should make the marker series appealing.
“In some cases you’ll walk by some of these signs every day, because they’ll be downtown,” Paulus said. “Other ones, you’ll have to … drive to it. So when it’s all said and done it may be tied into a Web site, tied into some literature, so that folks that come into town for the first time may open this map up and see that there’s a walking portion of it down on the waterfront. It is being master planned to be bigger than 10 signs, 20 signs, 40 signs, when it’s all done.”
At least five markers could be built quickly, Paulus said, because “there is money that’s been earmarked for it, not only in the design, but in the fabrication and the installation of it.”
The first could be on Water Street by the end of the summer, since money has been set aside for landscaping and improved parking.
The project, which has been discussed for 11 years, is estimated to cost about $80,000. It would be funded through earmarked funds, grants and, potentially, contributions, but is not expected to be funded through taxpayer money, Paulus said.
Expense is determined largely by how interactive, hands-on and mechanical the signs will be. They must also be able to weather the elements.
“We’re designing these so they won’t be something that the city is going to have to maintain,” Paulus said. “They’ll be out there for a long time.”
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jay Paulus is a designer of a series of historical markers that will be located throughout Bath. He foresees the markers being more interactive and appealing than traditional wall plaques. (Lear photo)