Saturday, March 8, 2014
FREEPORT - The phrase is emblazoned on business cards, town vehicles, the official letterhead and police shoulder patches -- proud words that have perpetuated an enviable story.
Freeport High School juniors, from left, Dalton Chapman, Katie McClellan and Shelby Sawyer were the top three vote-getters out of 22 students for their proposed new mottoes, which will be presented to the Town Council.
John Ewing/Staff Photographer
2013 Press Herald file photo/Carl D. Walsh
FREEPORT: OPEN HEARTS, VACATION CENTRAL, LESS FLAMMABLE
When Freeport’s town motto was debunked by historians earlier this year, a teacher at Freeport High School challenged 22 honors-level American History students to come up with a new one. Three finalists were selected by audience members at a National Honor Society induction ceremony May 21 to present their mottoes to the Freeport Town Council June 18.
“Open Harbor, open hearts” – Katie McClellan, 18 votes
“Freeport: The heart of vacationland” – Shelby Sawyer, 13 votes
“Freeport: Less flammable than we once were” – Dalton Chapman, 12 votes, a reference to major fires in the town over the years.
But the claim by Freeport that it is the birthplace of the state of Maine has been all but debunked by insistent historians, who say the motto is an apparent confabulation that has lingered in the town's institutional memory.
In a recent statement issued to the town, the Maine chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution said that when it installed a bronze memorial outside the Jameson Tavern in 1914, standards of proof for such claims were far lower, and that today such a proclamation would have been vetted through the group's national office. Town councilors will take up the issue next month.
"Approval for the plaque at Jameson Tavern would never be sought and most certainly never granted today," the DAR wrote. "The claims ... appear to be based on myth."
Recent research has shown that contrary to the plaque's inscription, 19th-century decision-makers in Freeport were opposed to separating Maine from Massachusetts. No records exist of the supposed meeting at the tavern to sign the documents that advocated statehood, according to the Freeport Historical Society.
"It's the town's motto and it's not true," Ned Allen, the society's collections manager, said in a Feb. 20 Press Herald story that renewed skepticism of the motto and provided some of the will to re-examine it.
"We don't want to be mean, but we can't perpetuate the story that it was the birthplace, even if the town wants it to be true," Allen said at the time.
As for the town co-opting the phrase, officials said that after researching the topic, no clear evidence has emerged that a formal motion was ever taken to include the birthplace assertion in town materials -- no record of the Town Council approving the phrase, no decree by a town manager long ago, no ancient meeting minutes affirming it.
And yet, as of this printing, the motto is flying high at the head of the town's website, still lettered on some emergency rescue vehicles, still stitched on police shoulder patches.
"From what we can tell, it kind of just happened," said Freeport Town Manager Peter Joseph. The assumption is so ingrained, he said, that when Joseph was hired by the town about seven months ago, his freshly minted business cards returned from the printer with the birthplace claim intact.
But because the Daughters of the American Revolution has stood up against its own plaque, town councilors are in a peculiar position, said Council Chairman James Hendricks. "Do we really have to take a vote to do away with a motto that's really not official?" he said.
Meanwhile, the longtime owner of the Jameson Tavern, John Stiles, declined a request from the DAR to remove the fallacious monument 10 years ago, and again more recently.
"Regrettably, the owner has declined," the DAR statement said.
Stiles has not returned calls for comment about the plaque, although he finalized a lease Tuesday to reopen the restaurant under the same name with new ownership. Tom Hincks, the new proprietor of the restaurant, said the plaque never came up.
"I dig it, the history of it all," said Hincks. "Unfortunately, as far as the historical society, of what's true or not, I can't help that."
If the town chooses to officially abandon the claim, there will be options to replace it.
After the Press Herald's story in February tracing the myth's dubious origins, Geoff Dyhrberg, an honors American History teacher at Freeport High School, revived an idea he had a year ago to have students do research with the help of the Freeport Historical Society to propose a new motto. On Tuesday before an audience of friends and family, 22 students made their pitch for new words of homage to their hometown.
Many focused on the commercial aspects of Freeport's identity -- the outlet stores and L.L. Bean factored heavily in some of the suggestions: "The home of L.L. Bean," "Where you'll find the finest hunting boot around," or the more familiar "Freeport? Nah ... L.L. Beanport!"
Other suggestions focused on the outdoorsy culture of the town: "Freeport, take it outside," "A town from a forest," "The gateway to the Harraseeket River," or "Freeport Maine, advocators for adventure!"
Three student finalists will present their ideas June 18 when the council takes up the issue. But Hendricks said the suggestions will not necessarily preclude the town from opening things up for a more public process so that anyone could submit an idea.
"This at least gives us a nice start," he said.
Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at: