That salient question was posed, albeit rhetorically, by an audience member during last night’s lively community conversation in Bangor, ably facilitated by team leader Deborah Averill and held in the lecture hall of the Bangor Public Library. (If you’ve never been there or made it upstairs, you owe yourself a visit to peer up at the stunning glass rotunda.) Like many other comments during the evening, the speaker’s question validated the brainstorming work already done by the team.
The gist of his meaning? Every Mainer knows the old saw about Bangor being the “lumber capital of the world” in the 19th century. With its more than 300 sawmills it well deserves that title, of course. It must have seemed like everyone was a lumberjack in those days. But, if you start and stop there, you aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. By the late 1800s Bangor’s lumbering industry had lost its vigor as Americans settled, and harvested forests, further and further west. It was a drawn-out demise that couldn’t help but make an impact on the once-dominant region. However, noted the same audience member, “Modern Bangor was created out of the death of lumbering.”
And “Modern Bangor” entails a heck of a lot. Somehow, team member and flip chart attendant Priscilla Soucie expertly kept up with the flow topics and ideas on what makes Bangor distinctive: Neighborhoods like Little City and the Highlands. A colorful history of crime and punishment. How urban renewal changed things. The spirit of charity and the central role of churches, missionaries, and seminaries. Trade networks. How 20th century national movements like suffrage, temperance (Carrie Nation at the Bangor House!), and abolition played out in the city. Parks and green spaces. Arts and culture. And on and on and on. (Let’s not forget “before lumbering” reminded a couple folks–Who were the native American residents? What drew the first European settlers?)
These rich contributions came from several local historians, teachers, and a young woman in high school working on a Girl Scout “Gold” Badge. (The latter reminded the group that the last 50 years is history, too, and barely gets covered in school.) By the end of the evening, which included homemade ginger snaps and chocolate drop cookies from a Bangor Rebekah cookbook, team members were full to bursting with potential subject matter for the next decade of their MCHP website. But a few had already started synthesizing the suggestions into a potential theme: Bangor as hub or gateway, where the movement of groups and ideas in and out of the city factored heavily in its evolution.
And fortunately, at the second team meeting earlier that day, the group decided to reconvene again in a week with one clear priority… prioritizing. First, organize and rate all the topics. Then, decide which ones have material behind them–either housed at the library, the Bangor Museum and Center for History, or out there in the community. (Like Lincoln, they collected such information from attendees, as well as gauging interest about mentoring students and help with scanning.) Next, mete out the topics among the two middle schools and various interested classes at the high school. Finally, as team member and Cohen Middle School teacher Ron Bilancia put it, “just sit down and hammer out” the fine details of individual student work plans, logistics of transporting collections, and how much schools will share the work or act independently.
Maine Historical Society Assistant Director Steve Bromage put it right when he said last night that Bangor has “an embarassment of riches” in terms of content. But the riches go beyond the mere fruits of the historical record. They are embedded within this strong and diverse team, and their additional community members.
People like Mr. Charles Colburn, an 87-year-old WWII veteran, recently awarded his Bangor High School diploma after missing out on it when he left for war. “I’ve got it. I’ve got it all!” he said to me last night, referring to memories of Bangor, and Maine at large, tucked away in his mind. “I can you tell stories you wouldn’t believe.” He went on to say he was quite a woodsman back in the day. “Do you know I once carried a deer on my shoulders all the way across a beaver dam? All the way across it!”
Set the trees aside for a moment… and dig into those deeply felt roots.