Machias reenactors look to create a home for history

When Maine Game Warden Joe McBrine first donned an historical costume to step back in time and relive the early days of Machias, he did not know that something much bigger was planted that day. Today, McBrine knows a seed has taken root and that there is a good chance something wonderful could happen for the entire Machias area.

Joe McBrine (right) and Wade Carter, pose for a photo in front of Bad Little Falls prior to the start of the Margaretta Days Festival in 2015. McBrine did not know at the time, a seed was planted and that this day would start the first thoughts of forming a reenactors group called Machias Committee of Safety, and that they would grow in numbers and be preparing to create a 18th century historical village in Machias, and naming it Liberty Village.

The Machias Committee of Safety (MCOS), a group of historical reenactors, is scheduled to make a late April presentation to Downeast Coastal Conservancy (DCC) on a proposal to build a small historical village, potentially in Middle River Park. Officially formed by McBrine over the winter in 2018, MCOS has been active in the area. Participating in festivals, parades, and school presentations, by way of historical reenactments, the group continues to evolve. With an initial membership of just a dozen, the group has grown to over 30 members.

MCOS members see Middle River Park as a potential site for the village because the location is central to some area historical markers and is highly visible to tourists traveling Route 1. Acquired by DCC in 2013, the land is deeded to allow 10 acres of its 100 acres for recreational building development. “Our hope is that we can work something out with DCC because the site is perfect for what we envision,” says McBrine. “But, of course, if it were not to happen, we would then go back and look at some other potential sites and go from there.”

Liberty Village will require approximately two acres of land. Buildings would be designed and built as permanent structures, with additional props brought in when required for events. Currently, the group’s plans call for erecting a blockhouse fort, a colonial homestead with small cabin, root cellar, garden and a smokehouse; wigwams to represent the Native American culture, influence and participation in historical events of the past; open shelters for demonstrations; and picnic areas.

This photo-shopped version of an18th century blockhouse fort, similar to the fort burned at Fort Foster near the current Machiasport bridge, is one of a few buildings the MCOS hopes to build on a two acre site, preferably Middle River Park which is owned by Downeast Coastal Conservancy (DCC).

“Our objective is to create an environment for reenactors and educators to teach through living history events and encourage lifelong involvement in learning, stewardship and conservation,” says Dan Qualls, MCOS member and a professor at University of Maine at Machias. The group plans to achieve this by promoting the historic value of Machias; providing hands-on learning with skill demonstrations by mentors in blacksmithing, knitting, boating, cooking, basket weaving and woodworking; creating partnerships with schools, businesses and other historical groups; and by showcasing an 18thcentury experience that is real and accurate.

 Machias oozes history

It’s no wonder a group of reenactors, dressing the part and disciplined to learn the stories, have captured the historical significance that exists in Machias.  Anyone who has read about the history of Machias, toured Burnam Tavern, or stopped to speak with local history icon Valdine Atwood at the Washington County Heritage Center understands there are plenty of historical “firsts” since starting as a small community in 1763. In 1770, the town received a grant for settlement, and the Burnam Tavern was built. Officially incorporated in 1784, the town was the first to do so, between the Penobscott and St. Croix rivers. Machias also had the first organized church in Washington County.

And Machias is where the first naval battle of the American Revolution was fought, which is celebrated every year in June with the Margaretta Days Festival. The festival remembers a small community living on the banks of the Machias River. With a determined leader they took possession of an armed British schooner named Margaretta.Two years later, the British returned to end the rebellion, avenge the death of its captain and burn the town of Machias to the ground in what today is called the Battle of the Rim.

During last year’s Wild Blueberry Festival, MCOS brought together patriots, Native Americans, and British reenactors to the very spot to recreate the Battle of the Rim. With over 100 people in attendance, the success of the event spoke volumes to the members of the group, as well as Valdine Atwood. “The enthusiasm that the MCOS reenactors have is amazing,” says Atwood. “Their interest in bringing life to the amazing history of the Downeast area is what has been needed for a long time. The proposed village will help bring the story of the men and women of the 1770s to life, drawing added attention not only to their story, but will encourage visitors to come and learn about early life in our part of Maine.”

Revitalization now under way

 Adding to renewal efforts already under way in Machias, any new attraction will bring more people to Machias, and with that, higher expectations for services and accommodations. Machias Revitalization Committee member and business owner Sandi Malagara recognizes a win-win for both the community and the ongoing revitalization to the downtown. She believes the village project helps bolster the committee’s commitment to renewal. “This historical village and all of the projects our committee is currently involved with go hand in hand,” says Malagara. “If we revitalize the town, we need traffic. This site will draw traffic and, once here, people will need and expect a vibrant downtown.”

Many projects are under way or being planned including sidewalk and curb improvements, street lighting upgrades, a new recreational park, significant improvements to the municipal airport, tree and shrub plantings, a walking history tour and a reclaimed waterfront with a river walk along the banks of the Machias River. “Our brass ring— if we are successful— will be a vibrant downtown community that stretches from the airport to the Margaretta Inn,” says Malagara.

Photo, Ryan Malagara

 Community support grows

 As information about Liberty Village spreads by word of mouth, MCOS has been speaking with organizations throughout the area, garnering additional support for the project. At a recent Machias Rotary meeting, McBrine and Qualls spoke to the membership and answered questions. “We are receiving plenty of positive input about this project,” says McBrine. “To date, we have received over a dozen letters of support from organizations, individuals and schools.”

A key supporter of the idea is Machias Town Manager Christina Therrien. “The Town of Machias is very excited about Liberty Village,” says Therrien. “ The celebration of the town’s history is an integral part of the community. We believe it will add much to our tourism and be a visual reminder of the contribution families of this area made to the beginning of our great nation.”

Washington County Manager and Machias Historical Society (MHS) member Betsy Fitzgerald regards the village as an investment in the future. “From the MHS point of view, it is encouraging to see the resurgence of interest in local history and to hear of the plans to bring the stories to the public,” says Fitzgerald. “Certainly the members are supportive, in fact, the organization has contributed financially to the project already. I know they are looking forward to seeing what could be.”

“It’s important we continue to pursue what we are passionate about when it comes to representing the history of this area,” says McBrine. “We owe that to the men and women that were the very first to live here and give us what we have today.”

“The impact of something like this has many intangibles,” says Qualls. “We understand that and believe there is value in pursuing our vision of having a place to explore living history.” The group believes the project brings value by teaching American history and focusing on the local impact made by ancestors of Machias and surrounding towns and that this will encourage youth to seek out history and skill building, as well as support the area’s economy. “Personally, I am excited about what we have achieved as a group in the short amount of time we have been doing this,” says McBrine. “I believe in this project and look forward to our next step, and beyond, in our pursuit of living history.”

RJ Heller

About RJ Heller

Having arrived here from Pennsylvania over four years ago, there has been plenty to learn and even more to observe. This place is different, but I mean that in a good way. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, I am a college graduate with a teaching degree, a business founder and seller, and a father of two children with my wife Stephanie; life has been full and somewhat adventurous, but finding Maine remains a high watermark in my life.