AUGUSTA — The gunsmith exhibit at the Maine State Museum drew curious children and amazed adults during Earth Day at the museum Tuesday. The collection of antique rifles and pistols designed by Maine artisans in the 1800s highlighted the kind of creativity and innovation that was widespread among gunsmiths 200 years ago, said curator Laurie LaBar.

While firearm season for deer in Maine kicks off this weekend with Youth Deer Day on Saturday, the state museum is telling another part of Maine’s hunting history.

“Maine being a rural place, guns have always been a part of the culture. What this exhibit is trying to explain is not only what remarkable gunmakers there were, but what inventors. Maine really was on the forefront of invention based on the production taking place here in the 1800s,” LaBar said. “A lot of gunsmiths in Maine had two jobs. They did this because they loved it.”

The gunsmith exhibit that runs until April is a precursor to another important Maine outdoor story that the museum’s curators plan to tell – the heyday of the sporting camps when sportsmen from New York, Philadelphia and Boston traveled to Maine to hunt and fish, some 200 years ago.

Museum Director Bernard Fishman is working on a photo story using historic 3-D photos, which were the style of the 1800s. Curators also plan to gather oral histories from owners of Maine sporting camps. That exhibit, once fundraising for the oral histories is raised, is expected to open next spring.

“This is original research,” Fishman said. “We want to record the remaining people who knew those from the earliest camps. These original outpost camps are a part of Maine tradition. So many people in Maine have little lake houses, which are the descendants of these first camps. And we have access to rarely published photographs.”

Jennifer Dube, development director with the Friends of the Maine State Museum, said the museum has a responsibility to tell Maine’s sporting camp story to the 14,000 school children who visit the museum and the more than 100,000 visitors who view its exhibits online or in person.

A stuffed bobcat sits in storage in an office at the Maine State Museum. Next year, the bobcat, along with other taxidermied animals, pelts and artifacts, will be part of a new exhibit on Maine's sporting camps.

A stuffed bobcat sits in storage in an office at the Maine State Museum. Next year, the bobcat, along with other taxidermied animals, pelts and artifacts, will be part of a new exhibit on Maine’s sporting camps.

“We are losing the ability to speak to the people who pioneered sporting camps and this culture of conservation. They were the first practicing wildlife management when the first hunting laws were in place,” Dube said. “We’re determined to tell this story.”

For now, the first-of-its-kind exhibit, “Inventors and Sportsmen: Maine Gunsmiths in the 1800s,” shows how ingenious Maine’s first gunsmiths were. In the 1800s, they held more than 30 patents.

A two-shot pistol is displayed under glass at the Maine State Museum's gunsmithing exhibit. The museum is also working on a new exhibit to tell the history and culture of Maine's sporting camps.

A two-shot pistol is displayed under glass at the Maine State Museum’s gunsmithing exhibit. The museum is also working on a new exhibit to tell the history and culture of Maine’s sporting camps.

A hands-on workbench in the exhibit showed children last week how challenging it is to build a primitive wooden rifle. An 8-foot-high state map stopped adults in their tracks as it illustrated how widespread gunmaking was in the 19th century – when Maine was home to more than 280 gunsmiths in 110 towns.

“Guns back then didn’t look like guns today. They were simpler. Today they’re more high-tech,” said Emma White, 9, who visited with Freeport’s Mast Landing School. “I know because my dad hunts. I think they have become more high-tech because hunting is more popular today. There are many different types of hunts for moose, deer, ducks.”

“Inventors and Sportsmen: Maine Gunsmiths of the 1800s” will be open at the Maine State Museum in Augusta until April. The manufacture of guns was an important part of rural life in the 19th century, and Maine was home to more than 280 gunsmiths in 110 towns. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Inventors and Sportsmen: Maine Gunsmiths of the 1800s” will be open at the Maine State Museum in Augusta until April. The manufacture of guns was an important part of rural life in the 19th century, and Maine was home to more than 280 gunsmiths in 110 towns. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The exhibit tells the stories of inventors like John Hall, a woodworker by trade who in 1811 invented the breech-loading rifle, which loaded the ammunition in the rear of the barrel. Hall also was the first to develop mass-produced guns using interchangeable parts.

“Eli Whitney gets the credit for interchangeable parts in guns. But he was really just better at PR,” LaBar said. “John Hall from Portland figured out if you mass produce each part, you could have semi-skilled workers mass produce the guns rather than building each individually.”

Then there were gunsmiths who had unrelated inventions, such as Hiram Leonard of Bangor, who was the first to design a six-part bamboo fly rod.

Jake Skakal of Augusta takes a close look at the antique rifles on display at the Maine State Museum’s gunsmith exhibit. Skakal was impressed by Maine’s historic role in the production of firearms. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Jake Skakal of Augusta takes a close look at the antique rifles on display at the Maine State Museum’s gunsmith exhibit. Skakal was impressed by Maine’s historic role in the production of firearms.
Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The center of the exhibit room displays the rifles like works of art with no informational panels – just 12 antique guns made by 12 Maine gunmakers. Some are crafted from tiger maple, while others have German silver carved into the barrel.

Following a group of children through the exhibit, Jake Skakal of Augusta and Bob Krol of Boston looked in awe at the sheer number of Maine firearm inventors in the 1800s.

Krol, a member of the Maine Conservation Corps, was impressed these early muzzle-loading guns could be mass-produced on a commercial level.

“I learned a lot about firearms in the U.S. Navy,” Skakal said. “But I didn’t know there were so many guns produced in Maine, let alone so many Maine inventors of (different kinds) of guns.”