19th century navigational charts, Victorian hair wreaths and salvaged flags help tell the stories of Searsport’s maritime heritage

Maritime history is not limited to ships and sailors.

A new permanent exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport aims to tell the larger stories of captains, sailors, wives and families of Maine captains and those who worked at home supporting the maritime industry.

The “Home at Sea: Searsport Maritime Stories” exhibit fills the rooms of the Fowler-True-Ross House, an early 19th-century Federal-style house that is part of the museum’s campus. Previously, the house was furnished with generic Victorian furniture that did little to explain Searsport’s special relationship with the sea, according to Cipperly Good, the curator of maritime history.

It’s all changed. In the bedrooms are old sea charts that Searsport captains used to navigate from port to port, with faint pen lines tracing the route of voyages made long ago. The living room is full of evocative memorabilia brought back from Asia and other distant lands, including a turtle captured at the mouth of a river in South America, bamboo chairs from China, a desk from Japan and much more.

“You had to bring something back for wives and mothers,” Good said. “You could really furnish your New England home with these wonderful things from abroad… In a way, we were really more connected to the world as Mainers in the 19th century, because people’s work was to pick up goods and go to other ports.”

The museum began assembling the exhibit for the 2020 celebration of Maine’s bicentennial and Searsport’s 175th anniversary, but the pandemic put those plans on hold for two years.

“I hope [museum-goers] get to know the people behind the houses of these captains, making them human,” she said. “And bring into reality the romance we have of the golden age of sailing.”

This is the time, mid-19th to early 20th century, when world trade relied on huge wooden sailing ships, many built in Maine shipyards and piloted by Maine sailors. No city was more connected to the sea than Searsport. Despite its small population – around 2,000 people – it produced over 500 merchant captains during these decades. Some captains took their wives and families with them on their voyages, but other wives chose to stay home to raise their children with the comforts of the continent.

Among the souvenirs Searsport captains brought back from their voyages were this turtle captured at the mouth of a South American river and a straw hat from China. The objects are part of a new exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum, “At Home, At Sea: Searsport’s Maritime Stories”. Credit: Abigail Curtis/BDN

Searsport also had 11 shipyards in its port during those years, and many ordinary sailors who served on sailboats were from the city and surrounding areas.

Although fortunes could be made by plying the seas, danger was also a constant companion. The exhibition does not shy away from telling tragic maritime stories of ships sunk in storms and men and women who died at sea.

“Sons and nephews would apprentice with fathers and uncles, which is a good thing,” Good said. “But you can wipe out a family if a ship sinks.”

The portrait of a pretty young girl in an elaborate white wedding dress was actually painted after she died at age 22 while honeymooning on her husband’s ship. Her sister put on the dress to pose for the painter.

In the 19th century, Searsport siblings Lincoln and Joanna Colcord, who grew up aboard their sea captain father’s sailboat, used dominoes and navigational charts to play imaginative games as children . The scene is part of a new permanent exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Credit: Abigail Curtis/BDN

There’s also an American flag with 38 stars that was saved from a shipwreck in the port of Kobe, Japan, and a masterful rendition of a dark Victorian art form made by a local woman: a crown of hair , made from the hair of deceased loved ones.

But not all stories told by objects are sad. Among the ship paintings and exotic memorabilia is a cheerful and humble line drawing that is just as relevant today as it was 150 years ago. A proud captain used his navigation chart to mark the spot in the Pacific Ocean – somewhere south of the Tropic of Cancer and east of Easter Island – where his wife gave birth to their daughter.

“Hope gave birth to a young Hopefull,” the captain wrote alongside a cartoon of a smiling man.

Being able to share such intimate glimpses of the past with visitors today is part of why Good loves his work.

Cipperly Good is the curator of maritime history at the Penobscot Marine Museum at Searsport. Credit: Abigail Curtis/BDN

“When you see the objects, the person [comes to life] again, and it’s great to make that connection,” said Good. “I think their stories can inspire us to have adventures and reflect on the jobs we do and the legacy they will have.”

The Penobscot Marine Museum will open for the season at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 27. Visitors can experience “At Home, at Sea” in the Fowler-True-Ross House through guided tours only.

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