“The Forts of Maine: Silent Sentinels of the Pine Tree State,” by Harry Gratwick, and “Wiscasset and Its Times: Stories of Maine’s Prettiest Village.” by Phil Di Vece, are two volumes that should not be overlooked in the rising tide of Maine-related material. Neither is scholarly nor particularly rigorous, though each is fun to read, generally achieves what the writers set out to accomplish and convey information that was not known or easily available previously.

Military history is not terribly popular in the halls of American academia, yet it has had a huge presence in the shaping of Maine from the 1600s through the present. Up until 1945, coastal artillery forts, strategically situated along the state’s hopelessly long shoreline, were a physical, psychological, economic and, oh yes, a military fact of life. Army coastal garrisons were part of the community, buying food and drink, contributing to nearly every aspect of the local fabric of Down East life, yet, slightly apart from the whole. They were the state’s and community’s visible connection with the federal government.

As Joel Eastman notes in his introduction, author Harry Gratwick takes a “practical and appealing approach” to fortifications in Maine. The author, longtime chairman of the history department of the Germantown Friends School of Philadelphia and a summer resident of Vinalhaven, aims to produce an accurate book for the general reader or visitor.

Gratwick divides the text into five chapters including “The Boundary Forts” (Fort McClary & Kent); “The Portland Harbor Forts” (Preble, Gorges, Scammel); “The Kennebec River Forts” (Popham & Western); “The Lincoln County Forts” (Edgecombe, & Piracy on the Pemaquid); and “The Penobscot Forts” (St. George & Knox). These not only outline the history of the place, but provide information on particular incidents, such as the time that Vice President Hannibal Hamlin served as a cook at Kittery in 1864. We are also told the story of Royal Navy Capt. Henry Mowat and his work at Fort George before the disastrous Penobscot Expedition in 1779, are treated to Cyrus Longley’s 19th-century sketches of Fort Popham and are introduced to Hilda Cushing, the reputed “savior of Fort Scammel” in the 1950s. This is enjoyable reading based on sources listed in a solid bibliography. There are a dozen other Maine forts discussed in a stack of sidebars at book’s end.

In similar style and form, Philip Di Vece gives the reader “Wiscasset and Its Times: Stories of Maine’s Prettiest Village.” Di Vece, a journalist who arrived in Maine in the late 1970s, ran his own weekly, The Wiscasset Times, from 1980 to 1995. The book is drawn from the writer’s vast knowledge of his chosen community. He is a keen enough reporter/historian to note the storytelling propensity of Mainers, and hence the potential accuracy (or lack thereof) of some accounts. His style is leisurely, enjoyable and, in a delightful way, probing. As he notes of the book; “I think it does have some historic significance in that it recalls a time that once was, and certainly never will be again.”

Di Vece discovers by asking people who know other people. In the process, we may find such treasures as “Rosicrucian Springs” while meeting a wonderful cast of originals. The 20 chapters are rich with ideas and information and told in a pleasing way. My favorite is Chapter 12, “A Turn in the Tower,” finding the location of a World War II aircraft spotting tower which stood from the opening days of 1941 until the early ’70s. There are photographs, interviews and documents, and once and for all we get a clear understanding of how deeply rooted in local life that war was. Everyone had a hand in the outcome. It was a local affair, not some distant, vaguely understood entanglement. This tells us much about ourselves, who we were, what we have become.

William David Barry is a local historian who has authored/co-authored seven books, including “Maine: The Wilder Side of New England” and “Deering: A Social and Architectural History.” He lives in Portland.


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