South Portland museum ready for Fourth of July opening

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland Historical Society is used to documenting local history.

But this weekend it will be making some of its own with the grand opening of the Cushing’s Point House museum at Bug Light Park.

The group will host a formal ceremony at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, July 4, that will include a reading of the Declaration of Independence by resident John Keirstead, playing Benjamin Franklin.

Following the ceremony there will be a cookout and games like three-legged and potato sack races and a water balloon relay. The park will remain open to view Portland’s Fourth of July fireworks.

The opening marks a significant moment in the Historical Society’s own history. For the first time, the group has its own space to display its collection to the public and house its archive.

Since the mid-1990s, the society has hopped around from city building to city building. Most recently, the group operated out of a 10-by-12-foot room in the basement of City Hall, with much of its archive spread among six city facilities.

In 2008, the group struck a deal with Portland Pipe Line for the abandoned Cushing’s Point House, which at the time sat further up Madison Street.

The society eventually raised enough money to move the 100-year-old, 95-ton, brick-and-mortar building to its present location, a half-acre oceanfront parcel leased from the city for $1 a year for the next 99 years.

For Executive Director Kathy DiPhilippo, the Fourth of July opening is the culmination of years of dreaming and fundraising.

“To have an actual physical location for people to see what you have and what you’re doing is great,” DiPhilippo said. “It’s so exciting. It’s a wonderful place to be. People come in and they’re so excited. It’s so rewarding to be a part of it.”

Cushing’s Point House has four display areas and a gift shop. The main display area currently features South Portland’s shipbuilding history, which is fitting since museum sits in the middle of what once was the center of the World War II Liberty Ship operation.

DiPhilippo said the display area will also feature a lighthouse exhibit, since the city has both the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse and Bug Light, which were once connected by an underwater cable so they could be operated by one keeper.

“It’s pretty neat to have two (lighthouses) here,” she said. “We’re right in the middle of the shipyard, so we will always have shipbuilding in here.”

A smaller display area in the back will feature one of South Portland’s seven original neighborhoods and how it changed with the advent of the automobile. The current display features Lagonia (or Cash Corner), while next year’s display will focus on Knightville.

A research room offers visitors access to directories, genealogical books and historical maps. The material in the society’s archives is also available by appointment.

There are also features on South Portland schools, including photos of the Broadway Grammar School and a desk and chair from the Willard School, and the city’s role as host to a training camp during the Civil War.

In one of the display cases, there is a Sept. 17, 1862, letter from a soldier to his wife describing the conditions at Camp Berry, which was originally called Camp Abraham Lincoln.

“First rate camping ground. Straw beds and blankets,” the soldier writes. “Our grub is good enough, hard bread, beef, beans, coffee.”

DiPhilippo said the museum hosted its first elementary school class last year, giving the society a chance to bring the city’s history to life.

“History is supposed to be more than just memorizing dates,” she said. “This kind of stuff gives them the details they need.”

The museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. It will be open on weekends through December.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

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South Portland Historical Society Executive Director Kathy DiPhilippo, right, stands in front of the Cushing’s Point House museum in Bug Light Park with Robbie Plummer, of Eastern Excavation, which did the site work. A grand opening ceremony is slated for July 4.

South Portland Historical Society Executive Director Kathy DiPhilippo shows exhibits that will be debuted to the public when the museum at Bug Light Park has its grand opening on July 4 at 11:30 a.m.

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