Wednesday, March 12, 2014
Re-enactor to portray John Adams at fundraising event for museum
Visitors participate in a recent cemetery walk sponsored by Tate House Museum. The tour featured eight specters from the city’s past who talked about life in the 1700s. Among the specters was Mary Tate, the family matriarch.
Photos courtesy Nancy Ladd
Since 1891, the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America has labored to preserve America’s colonial heritage and patriotic service.
The oldest genealogical society for women of colonial ancestry, the organization exists to preserve the locales, objects and histories associated with the nation’s original 13 colonies.
On Saturday, the Colonial Dames’ Maine chapter will receive a boost of presidential proportions in their efforts to preserve Portland’s own Tate House Museum at 1267 Westbrook St.
That’s when historic re-enactor George Baker will portray John Adams, the nation’s second president, at 7 p.m. at the Maine Historical Society at 489 Congress St.
Dressed in period costume, Baker will share a combination of factual and humorous stories detailing his wife and times in a program entitled “My Wife Abigail Adams: America’s First Modern Woman.”
The event serves as a fundraiser for the Tate House Museum, a 501 C3 non-profit that is financed solely by grant funding, charitable donations, house tours, special events and membership fees.
The real Adams likely never visited the Tate House during his trip to Maine in July of 1774 but the home was a familiar part of the landscape at that time.
And bringing the Tate House back into the public consciousness is the goal of area Dames and docents who want others to know about its economic importance in the colonial mast trade and its role during the American Revolution.
Built in 1755, Tate House was the pre-Revolutionary War home of Capt. George Tate, a senior mast agent for the British Royal Navy of England, who was responsible for harvesting timber for ship-mast production.
In those days, Britain’s King George III ruled that all white pines in the Province of Maine, of a specific height and diameter, be marked as property of the Sovereign.
It was illegal for colonists to harvest such timber for themselves – a ruling that enraged colonists and further fueled tensions between the American colonies and the British crown.
According to Nancy Ladd, a Colonial Dame and volunteer member of the group’s publicity committee, settlers began destroying the marked trees rather than see them come into the hands of the British Royal Navy.
“When colonial courts refused to punish those who destroyed trees, the British responded by bombing the town of Falmouth in 1775,” said Ladd.
The Tate family fortune never recovered after the Revolutionary War and by 1803 the home, its furnishings and family papers were sold off to pay the debt.
The house was converted into tenement housing and managed by a string of absentee landlords until the early 1900s.
The Tate House was purchased by the Colonial Dames in 1931 and has since undergone a few notable renovations – the largest in 1953. At that time, measures were taken to restore the original structural design of the house, including the addition of an ell that once stood on the property.
Evidence of the home’s 100-year history as a tenement can be seen in the kitchen area in what is considered to be one of the few furnishings original to the home – a cupboard that was sawed in half and served to bookend a dividing wall for conversion to a duplex.
A few other items, including coins, buttons, musket balls, marbles, China fragments and a silver ink stand found in the basement are the only other items original to the home.
“The house is now furnished with objects that represent what a merchant-class household like the Tates’ might have looked like in Colonial America,” said Ladd.
“Architecturally, the house is sound and a great example of a pre-Revolutionary War period post and beam construction,” said Ladd. “It still has its large brick beehive oven in the kitchen. While there may be other such examples in the area, this is the only one that is open to the public. It’s amazing that it has survived so many devastating fires from that time.”
The home, a National Historic Landmark, is part of a complex that includes the 1797 Means House, across the street, which serves as an office, gift shop, meeting space and reception venue. Since 2005, the complex has been managed by Tate House Museum, Inc.
Gift shop manager and docent Joan Hatch said that part of the challenge of keeping the house in the public eye is coming up with activities and programs that draw people away from more conveniently located downtown venues.
“We are not downtown and in close proximity to places like (the Longfellow House). People have to make an effort to get to us,” said Hatch.
In more recent times, Hatch and other docent volunteers have been overseeing events such as a recent fall spirit walk through the cemetery where the Tate family and other area residents are interred.
A recent fundraiser walk, held during the Halloween season, featured the likenesses of some of the area’s more notable historic figures, dressed in black and appearing by their headstones in the cemetery to provide a short historical narrative about their life.
The characters included a local tavern owner, the president of the local women’s temperance union and Mary Tate – matriach of the Tate family, who was accidentally killed by a trap set to stop thieves from raiding the family supply room. Mary was killed when a handgun, rigged to a tripwire, went off when she opened the ell door.
The tour raised $1,100 toward the general operating budget.
Both Ladd and Hatch agreed that the future of Tate House lies not in merely reaching out to visiting tourists but in reminding residents the historic landmark is here.
Another recent boost came when the Tate House’s history was published in a book listing historic area landmarks.
That book is now being used in all grade 3 classrooms, making the house known to elementary school children.
Tickets for Saturday’s fundraiser are $45 and can be purchased by calling the Tate House office at 774-6177 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Refreshments of the colonial era will be served.
Staff Writer Deborah Sayer can be contacted at 791-6308 or at: