YARMOUTH – The dark, rough-hewn timbers inside the steeple of the Old Meeting House are scored and painted with the names of dozens of people who have worked on the structure since it was built in 1796.

Soon, Andrew Wilcox and his crew from MMR Professional Steeplejacks of Boothbay will add their names to the graffiti-like register hidden within the town’s oldest standing church building.

“I guess it’s kind of a tradition,” Wilcox said Wednesday. “I sign every steeple we do. Just put my initials and the date.”

On Monday, the three-man team started a $30,000 restoration project that was funded by the Town Council in June. For the next three to four weeks, the workers will dangle from heavy ropes and harnesses about 100 feet off the ground, carefully scraping, painting and repairing the 215-year-old steeple.

Despite the danger, they are motivated by the excitement and pleasure of working on some of Maine’s tallest, most beautiful buildings, including the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport earlier this year, Wilcox said. They’re also happy to help preserve a piece of Yarmouth history that holds special memories for many people and remains an important community center.

“I guess bravery and stupidity go hand in hand,” Wilcox said, fluffing off any fear of heights. “We get to work on stuff that most people don’t, and it keeps us busy.”

Built by Baptists when George Washington was president, the meetinghouse has served a variety of purposes through the years and come to symbolize the community spirit of Yarmouth.

It was the second church built in town, when Maine was part of Massachusetts and Yarmouth was part of North Yarmouth, which was named after the Yarmouth that’s on Cape Cod. North Yarmouth once included Cumberland, Pownal, Freeport and Harpswell, as well as Yarmouth.

The town’s first church, known as the Meeting House Under the Ledge, was built in 1729 by Congregationalists on what is today Gilman Road. Only its doorstep remains, said Amy Thompson, program director for the Yarmouth Historical Society.

Renovated and restored through the years, the Old Meeting House, on Hillside Street, ceased being used as a church in 1889, when the town’s Baptists built their present church on Main Street. The steeple’s bell, originally hung in 1805, was moved to the new church.

In 1890, George and Ellen Hammond bought the meeting house for $1,000 and converted it into the town’s first library and antiquarian society, known as Yarmouth Memorial Hall. It was donated to the town in 1910 and used for town meetings until 1946.

During World War II, the belfry served as an airplane-spotting center in the Civil Defense System. Townspeople manned the tower day and night in two-hour shifts.

In 1946, the Village Improvement Society, founded 100 years ago this year, agreed to maintain the interior of the meetinghouse, which it still does today. A decade ago, the town and the society funded a major structural restoration of the meetinghouse, from the granite foundation to the barrel-vaulted ceiling.

Prue Heard, chairwoman of the society’s Meeting House Committee, gave the steeplejacks high marks for the work they’re doing to preserve and repair the steeple, which stands about 120 feet tall.

“Anyone who scrapes and primes like that gets an A from me,” Heard said Wednesday as she monitored their progress.

The meetinghouse holds sentimental value for many residents of Yarmouth and beyond, Heard said. For years, eighth-grade graduations were held there. The town holds a nondenominational church service there each year during the Yarmouth Clam Festival. And people regularly rent the property for weddings and other special events.

“So many people have gotten married here or were baptized here,” Heard said. “There are other churches in Yarmouth, but there’s something special about this one.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: [email protected]


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