Historic Winterport building gets electricity

Volunteers look ahead to busy summer schedule, including evening events
By Ethan Andrews | May 27, 2016
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Winterport's meeting house, aglow with electrical lighting for the first time in its history.

Winterport — Last week (2016), Maggie English-Flanagan turned a key in the wall of the 1833 Winterport Union Meeting House. Somewhere overhead a motor hummed and a massive chandelier in the center of the room started descending toward the floor. The idea was to bring it within reach to change the candelabra bulbs, of which there were 18.

The building just got electricity for the first time, so all of this — the motor, the light bulbs in the chandelier, along with a dozen wall sconces and electrical outlets — was strangely novel.

The Union Meeting House overlooks Main Street from atop a steep rise near the center of town. It was built by Frankfort Religious Society — Winterport was then part of Frankfort — and was used for all types of congregating at time when church and civic life were more tightly intertwined.

The design was based on plans for Orrington Methodist Church, interpreted by a young local architect named Calvin Ryder, who would go on to have a career of note in Maine and Boston.

The society used donated materials and sold pews for $60 each to raise the $2,875 (roughly $160,000 today) needed to construct the building. It included a bell made by Paul Revere's company, and later a four-faced steeple clock.

Methodists split from the Society in 1850 and the meeting house carried on as the Congregational Church. By the early 20th century, membership had declined enough that regular services ceased and maintenance was left to a few of the original pew donors.

After a half-century in decline, the meeting house was reborn in the 1970s under the guidance of Winterport Union Meeting House Corp., a nondemonimational citizen group.

The volunteer organization raised money to replace the slate roof and made other improvements.

Why it took so long to get electricity remains somewhat of a mystery.

English-Flanagan, who joined the board of directors five years ago, said there had been talk of it for years, but members had a hard time committing to the expense. An influx several years ago of new volunteers, affectionately dubbed the "young ones" by longtime members, might have been the catalyst, she said.

On May 19, English-Flanagan and Meeting House Treasurer Ann Ronco were cleaning up after some interior work. As is often the case in renovations of old buildings, there had been some surprises along the way. Pulling up deteriorated hand-loomed carpets from the aisles had revealed glimpses of Yankee ingenuity in the form of quilts and newspapers used for padding. The latter were dated 1905, meaning the carpet was a new edition, relatively speaking.

Between the pews, each carpet was woven in a different pattern, reflecting a kind of personalization, probably for the benefit of the early donors.

The chandelier is a replacement for one that probably would have used whale oil lamps instead of light bulbs and been lowered by hand for lighting. The original is believed to have been stolen decades ago, Ronco said, and members were unable to track down photos of the original. The new one — a simple array of arms blossoming into a delicate ring of lights — was based on chandeliers in similar buildings of the time.

All of this new work will be on display at an open house June 10.

The new lighting will extend hours beyond the limitations of daylight hours and the six large windows — each with 48 panes — that flank the main hall of the Meeting House.

A busy summer schedule includes upcoming appearances by comedian Tim Sample and "Old Cops" Mark Nickerson and John Ford. The space has always been popular for weddings, Ronco said, adding that it would make a great venue for lectures and music recitals.

"We're ready to make this usable again, to the public and to the town," she said.

What happens in winter remains to be seen. In past years, the Meeting House was closed up. And not only for want of daylight.

"There's no heat in the building," Ronco said. "That might begin to be our next project."

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