SKOWHEGAN — While Abner Coburn of Skowhegan may be remembered this weekend as one of three Maine governors during the Civil War and as a generous philanthropist who left his mark in the region, the historic mansion that he once lived in cries out for a sprucing-up.
On Saturday — the 211th anniversary of Coburn’s birth — the town of Skowhegan will honor him with the first Governor Abner Coburn Day. There will be an open house and historical presentations at the Skowhegan Public Library from 12:30 to 2 p.m.
Coburn served three terms in the state Legislature and amassed a fortune in his lifetime, much of which he used to establish lasting institutions including the Skowhegan Free Public Library, the Somerset County Courthouse and Oak-Grove Coburn, an academy in Vassalboro that is now home to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy.
But for all the interest surrounding the celebration, there also is neglect and deterioration of the original Coburn Mansion in Skowhegan, where the former governor lived with his brother.
The Skowhegan Board of Selectmen in December proclaimed March 22 Abner Coburn Day. Coburn died in January 1885.
Built in the Greek revival style, the Coburn mansion was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. It was listed as threatened and among Maine’s most endangered historic resources by Maine Preservation in 1998.
Melvin Burnham, president of the Board of Trustees and director at Skowhegan History House Museum, said most people who come into the museum say they’re sad about the Coburn mansion’s state.
Burnham said the mansion is dilapidated. “It’s falling apart. The general feeling is that it’s lost to our community,” he said. “It’s amazing how frequently people will have a reply — what a shame it is to see that building fall apart.”
The owner of the house, Doug Corson, who has lived all of his 76 years next door to the Coburn mansion, said he bought the place 45 years ago to ensure his privacy. There always was a lot of traffic up that dirt driveway, he said.
Corson said Wednesday that all the house needs is a good paint job. He said the overgrown landscaping was meant to be a screen for noisy visitors, not neglect of the grounds.
Corson said he has had an inquiry from a Skowhegan family to buy the property, but he has been slow to move on it.
“I’m pleased to see for once the town perhaps is going to pay some attention to Governor Coburn, that in itself is a welcome surprise,” Corson said of the Saturday celebration. “The house you see — there’s that conflict, the duality between the attention to the house and the privacy. I am very protective of my privacy and that house does not invite privacy.”
Katie Ouilette, chairwoman of the Skowhegan Heritage Council, which is hosting Saturday’s Coburn Day events, said she has spoken about the house many times with Corson. She said she fears people are forgetting Coburn, his accomplishments and his home in Skowhegan. Ouilette said she hopes Corson will come around and help restore the property “and let the mansion belong to Skowhegan, as its creators Abner and Philander did.”
“I told him during one of our talks,” Ouilette continued. “I said, ‘Doug, we are all going to die someday and, if I were you, I’d rather die having everyone sorrowful in their love for me than hating me for neglecting the mansion’s upkeep.’ But until Doug turns and realizes what a great gift he possesses for Skowhegan, we will not succeed.”
Burnham and others in Skowhegan say despite the sad shape of the old home, it is a fine idea to establish a day to draw attention to the man who did so much for the community.
“I decided to approach the selectmen to make sure they recognize this guy every year because the kids of Skowhegan — the people of Skowhegan — don’t know anything about him,” said local attorney Robert Washburn, chairman of the Coburn Day committee. “He’s been forgotten.”
Born the second oldest of 14 children in the Canaan section of what is now Skowhegan in 1803, Coburn and his brother Philander operated a surveying firm.
Coburn came to own more than 450,000 acres of land in Maine and more than 60,000 acres in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Washington and Dakota territory, according to a biography compiled for the anniversary by the Skowhegan Heritage Council.
Along with his land holdings, Coburn had investments in shoe manufacturing, banks, railroads, stock markets and timber. At one time he was considered the richest person in Maine, having accumulated assets that today would be worth the equivalent of more than $170 million dollars, according to the Heritage Council.
“He gave almost all of his money away,” Washburn said. “He never was married. No children. He was a generous man — he shared his wealth.”
Coburn also donated money to help educational institutions such as Waterville Classical Institute, Colby University, Bloomfield Academy in Skowhegan and the Maine State College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts, which later became the University of Maine. He served on Colby’s Board of Trustees for 40 years, including as president. In 1872, Coburn erected and presented the new courthouse to Somerset County, allowing Skowhegan to replace Norridgewock as the county seat of Somerset County, according to the Heritage Council.
Coburn also donated land along the Kennebec River in Skowhegan, which today is Coburn Park. He gave $100,000 to Maine General Hospital in Portland and $50,000 to the Maine Insane Asylum, along with many others many others, including $200,000 to the American Baptist Home Missions Society with the condition that half of the money be used to educate freed slaves. There also was a sailing ship — the Abner Coburn — named for him. Coburn Gore, on the Canada border in Franklin County, is named for him. He also helped establish the Republican Party in Maine in 1854.
He was governor from 1863 to 1864, and according to the website Maine: An Encyclopedia, he “fervently supported the Union cause.”
“He was an amazing man,” Washburn said. “Totally abstained from alcohol, never used profanity, a person of highest integrity.”
Burnham said tours of the museum ultimately lead people to say how unfortunate it is to see Coburn mansion in the conditions it is in.
“It comes down to money,” Burnham said. “Not only money, it takes people and time and when those conditions don’t come together, things don’t get done.”
Corson, who also owned the Skowhegan Drive-In Theater and now runs Central Maine Artists Gallery on West Front Street, agreed that it would take a lot of money to bring the mansion back to its former glory. Corson bought the place in August 1968, according to county real estate records, which do not list a sale price. The property’s appraised value is $143,900, according to town records.
Corson said he is aware of the historic designation of the home and that it would qualify for tax credits for money invested in the property. The house at 24 Main St. is now listed on town assessment records as a three-unit apartment building, its fluted Doric pillars now faded and overground with brush and trees. The siding is stained and chipped.
“I’ve had an offer to sell it to somebody who I think would take good care of it,” Corson said. “I’m just not quite ready to move yet.”
Doug Harlow — 612-2367