The Castine Historical Society’s 2017 exhibit, Castine’s Devoted Women: Partnership and Social Reform 1910-1962, focused on the life and work of Mary W. (Molly) Dewson and her life-partner Mary G. (Polly) Porter. Theirs was the era of American history encompassing the final stages of the struggle for women’s right to vote, the turmoil of two world wars, social reforms impacting labor and wages, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal.
Born in 1874, Dewson graduated from Wellesley College in 1897 and committed her professional life to social reform, including wages-and-hours legislation and women’s suffrage. In 1928 Eleanor Roosevelt recruited her to work in the presidential and New York state gubernatorial campaigns. In 1932 Molly applied her grass roots political skills to FDR’s presidential campaign and later headed the Women’s Division of the Democratic National Committee.
The Porter-Dewson’s (as they called themselves) spent several months every year at the Porter family home in Castine, Maine, from 1912 until their retirement in the coastal Maine town in 1952. The exhibit reveals the strength of Porter and Dewson’s relationship and their commitment to family, friends and community in New York City and Castine.
The inspiration and primary source for the exhibit was the recent gift to the Society of 28 scrapbooks meticulously created by the Porter-Dewson’s over 50 years. The story of the two women’s life together is told through images from the scrapbooks along with their words and those of their contemporaries taken from newspaper clippings, letters and memoirs. We are extremely grateful to Molly’s great niece, who generously donated these treasured scrapbooks, many of which are also preserved on microfilm at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard College.
To learn more about this exhibit see the summer 2017 edition of The Castine Visitor .
Hear women’s historian and Molly Dewson biographer Susan Ware give a talk entitled “Two Lifelong Partnerships: Molly Dewson and Polly Porter, and the Historian Who Wrote About Them” by visiting our Speakers and Lectures page.
For three days in July 2015, Castine was subject to the largest invasion in its history. Not even the British invasions of 1779 and 1814 could match the number of “occupiers” who began arriving on the morning of July 14, 2015. They came, not as a hostile army, but to participate in the visit of l’Hermione–a replica of the French frigate that in 1780 brought the Marquis de Lafayette to America, bearing news of France’s commitment to American independence.
The exhibit, inclusive of much of the display from 2015, featured images of the ship and crew in Castine, the celebrations, distinguished guest speakers, events and the welcoming parades both on land and at sea.
The “Magabagaduce” peninsula (Bagaduce) had been contested ground for centuries, first home to the aboriginal natives, then claimed and fortified by both the French and the British in the 17th and 18th centuries. After 1776, this isolated settlement became part of the new American nation.
By spring 1780, the British were back and had nearly finished building a new fort at Bagaduce. Why? And what happened when a French warship, after delivering the Marquis de Lafayette to Boston in May 1780, sailed the waters of Penobscot Bay in search of British vessels to capture?
Our exhibit featured documents from the period and presented the key people involved to reveal answers to these questions.
For many Americans, the War of 1812 was a “second war for independence.” They believed that the British had never really accepted the “first” war for independence, and were again seeking to make Americans subservient to King George.
Other Americans believed this was nonsense. They blamed the war on President James Madison, called it “Mr. Madison’s War,” and saw it instead as a pretext for expansion into Canada. There is evidence on both sides of the controversy, even today.
On September 1, 1814 a British contingent invaded and occupied Castine. They would not leave until the following April. Our exhibit told the story of both the War and Castine’s occupation.
In 2013 summer the Castine Historical Society published Missions and Meeting Houses, Chapels and Churches, Four Centuries of Faith in Castine, a collaborative publication written by Lynn Hudson Parsons. The exhibit illustrated 400 years of local religious activity including the worship and social aspects of Castine’s churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The four current churches in Castine were highlighted.
From the preface of Dr. Parsons’ book:
“The story of four centuries of religion in Castine is complex. It has many characters: North American Indians, Frenchmen, Englishmen, and, eventually, Americans. The men and women of Castine whose lives were affected by their religious convictions were also part of a greater community. By studying them, and their places of worship, we may come to know the community better.”
In April 1940 Germany invaded Denmark. The United States was not then at war with Germany, but was called upon by the Danish government to protect Greenland as a strategic outpost in the North Atlantic. On June 1, 1941, the U.S. Navy organized the “Greenland Patrol,” an unconventional fleet of vessels that included the twenty-year-old schooner Bowdoin, as well as Coast Guard cutters and buoy tenders, an icebreaking tugboat, and a dozen fishing trawlers fitted for Arctic service.
The Bowdoin had been built to the specifications of Donald Baxter MacMillan, who had taken the schooner on almost annual voyages to the Arctic since it was launched in 1921. It was “Mac” who commanded the vessel on the first expedition of the “Greenland Patrol,” with a wartime crew and a new mission.
The exhibit planning was spearheaded by Peg Brandon and Betsy Reese, Visiting Curators who were then Maine Maritime Academy faculty.
Castine is a small town with a notable and much-examined history. We’ve been collecting documents and studying the land for 200 years, yet tales for which we have no written documentation have persisted down to the present day.
Some of the stories in our 2011 summer exhibit had been confirmed by archival sources contemporary to the events. Some seemed likely but hadn’t been documented. And some of the stories were loaded with sensationalism and speculation. We found ourselves reluctant to dismiss any of them.
The exhibit presented what people say about some aspects of Castine’s history and each panel included a fact-checking commentary by our curator.