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Writing Maine History: Every Day of the Year

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

by Joseph Owen

This enterprise is chock-full of dates.

Here’s one of them: November 25, 2019. That’s the day I realized I had been wearing my bathrobe for about forty straight hours, except for the time I spent sleeping. I get some of my best ideas while wearing my bathrobe. Come to think of it, I get some of my worst ones then, too.

Does This Day in Maine fall into either category? You be the judge. All I know is that on November 25, an effusively bathrobe-intensive day, my wife was out of town visiting her father, and I was trolling the internet with my feet surrounded by a dilapidated fortress of Maine-themed books as I tried to carry out a task that had seemed at first to be child’s play but turned out to be almost as hard as balancing the federal budget.

That task, one I made up for myself in consultation with Portland Press Herald metro editor John Richardson, a former colleague, was linked to Maine’s bicentennial celebration of having achieved statehood in 1820. I proposed to come up with at least one Maine-linked historical event for every day of the calendar in the year 2020, provide the Press Herald with a synopsis of that event for publication on the appropriate date online and in the newspaper, and make it available for use in the company’s other Maine daily newspapers—the Sun Journal, of Lewiston; the Kennebec Journal, of Augusta; the Morning Sentinel, of Waterville; and the Times Record, of Brunswick. What a perfect use, I thought, for the menagerie of random information about Maine that had been milling around in my brain for the past twenty years or so, much of it no more interrelated than an average group of passengers on the bus that my wife rides when she goes to see her father.

I started in September. The first thirty or forty entries were easy. Joshua Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg. The 1998 Ice Storm. Stephen King’s first published novel. Harriet Beecher Stowe writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Brunswick. The day the Maine Turnpike opened. Portland’s Great Fire of 1866.

Then the researcher’s equivalent of writer’s block threatened to kick in. I started to find myself sitting at the computer with an internet browser open, typing things such as “cool Maine stuff” into a search window. I mined my home library for possible entries. In the shower, an idea would strike me, and I would towel off, dash to the computer and look it up, fearful that I might forget the brainstorm if interrupted by a phone call from a telemarketer. I called friends and experts and asked them for help, often edging toward debates about matters such as whether the Readfield Union Meeting House and its trompe l’oeil murals belongs on such a list. (It doesn’t. That’s for a different list.)

Eleven weeks into the project, near the end of my off-again, on-again bathrobe marathon, I had covered 254 of the dates, with multiple entries for some of them. By this time, the task had consumed about a hundred hours, my work had generated an unillustrated manuscript of nearly fifty pages in tiny type, and it still was a long way from being finished. That’s when it hit me: This project is a book. You hold the evidence of that in your hands.

It’s not only a book; it’s also a public service. Nobody—well, no self-respecting extrovert in Maine, anyway—can afford not to know about the Revolutionary War general who escaped captivity in Castine by cutting a hole in the roof of his jail cell; or about the Royal Tar, a

ship that caught fire and sank off the Maine coast, resulting in a lot of deaths because lifeboats had been removed to make room for a large number of circus animals.

So the next time you host a dinner party, if a guest notes that you have run out of mixed nuts or whatever he or she is drinking to wash them down, use distraction as your defensive tactic. Regale the visitor with the tale of a German saboteur whose railroad bridge bombing during World War I shattered most shop windows in the border town of Vanceboro on what probably was the coldest day of the year, immediately forcing the Vanceboronians, or Vanceborites, or whatever they’re called, to take emergency measures to protect their property.

“No, really?” the guest will say.

“Yes, really,” you will say.

“No kidding?” the guest will say.

“You can look it up,” you’ll say, and then hand the guest this book. You’re welcome.

This essay was excerpted from This Day in Maine by Joseph Owen. Owen is a former copy desk chief of Maine’s Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal newspapers. He worked as a newspaper editor for twenty-two years, and a newspaper reporter for eighteen years before that, including nine years in Germany at European Stars and Stripes and four years in Japan at its Asian counterpart, Pacific Stars and Stripes.

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