The future of Maine can be envisioned by studying its past. By exploring historic places, we can better understand the difficult issues we face.
A case in point is Portland’s small Tate House Museum, overlooking the Stroudwater and Fore rivers. It provides a way to see the past as it relates to major issues. This crown jewel’s history offers lessons that can help us better define what kind of nation we are, what our institutions stand for and what it means to be an American.
The central figure is a middle-aged immigrant, George Tate, who came to Portland with his family in 1750. They found fame and fortune, lived through the American Revolution and eventually were bankrupted by changes in the very economy that had built their wealth.
Originally here to act as the masting agent for the British Crown, Tate was in charge of supplying the Royal Navy with the trees needed for ships’ masts to maintain their supremacy on the high seas. Today he would simply be another CEO mixing business with politics. His exploitation of our state’s prime lumber was instrumental in British trade and tax policies – not much different from issues we face in the 21st century.
Most of us commonly think of World War I as the first global war. But it was really the French and Indian War, which took place around the time that Tate arrived in America. He survived the Revolution and witnessed huge changes as a new nation emerged. Tate saw the fragmentation of the Native American people and the upheaval in the British Empire. He experienced the shift to new non-Catholic Colonial religions in a post-war Maine. It makes one think of the shifting world powers and religious strife of our own era.
So far, we have touched on issues like immigration, trade, revolution and global conflict. All these are issues that Tate faced and that continue to plague us today. What helps us demonstrate this connection are timeless critical thinking tools – such as drawings, architecture, interpretation, documents, gardens, music and art – that provide ways to study a past for a present and future that embodies America’s human journey.
To better understand the museum’s relevance is to know something about the National Society of Colonial Dames of America in Maine. Founded during the 1890s, this women’s organization trace its lineage to ancestors who were here before the Revolutionary War. They have long worked to preserve, serve and educate Maine communities. Guided by that mission, the Dames purchased the Tate House in the early 1930s. The organization has since worked to conserve the Tate House and make it accessible to all.
Conservation has been a core principle for them. For example, after the 1961 destruction of Portland’s Union Station, active Dames like Frannie Peabody, Mary Lou Sprague and Jane Moody supported preservation efforts that led to the 1964 establishment of Greater Portland Landmarks.
Faced with changing times, the Dames in 2005 organized a community board. That board works with them to promote a Tate House history that also underscores Maine’s new economic and cultural realities. For example, they want to make the Tate House a key learning experience for Portland’s changing, especially immigrant, school populations.
Historian David McCullough also reminds us that such historic sites can be vehicles for restoring history to public education. Studies show only 12 percent of America’s high school students have a grasp of American history. Knowing more about Maine history through the Tate House, however, requires greater social investments in museum restorations, collections and educational programs for expeditionary learning.
Recent examples of increased community outreach include the July 30 Tate House “Colonial Frolic” visit on the spectacular Spurwink Farm in Cape Elizabeth. It is a family fun day that “goes back to the future” through historic picnic and educational activities. A fundraising event is also scheduled for Oct. 29 at the Portland Marriott at Sable Oaks, to garner civic and business support for needed investments.
Museums like the Tate House can provide educational, intellectual and creative ways to historically observe, learn and study about a past that can help us better understand today’s issues.
What better way to more thoughtfully grasp Maine’s present and future than by going back to a Tate House past through visits, study and involvement?