As retirement projects go, Joseph Owen’s is a whopper: Look back on 200 years of Maine history and, for each and every day of this bicentennial year, find at least one noteworthy news nugget that occurred on that specific date.

“I figured I could come up with a whole bunch of stuff that I already knew about. The first 30 or 40 were really easy,” Owen, 66, a longtime journalist and history buff, said in a phone interview on Friday from his home in Augusta. “Then I started to run out. I thought, ‘Well, it’s not going to be as easy as I thought it was going to be.’”

Which makes Owen’s “On this date in Maine history” series, appearing in Masthead Maine’s daily newspapers in Portland, Lewiston Augusta, Waterville and Brunswick, all the more impressive, not to mention informative. While others view Maine’s 200th birthday in terms of centuries, decades or even individual years, Owen has broken the state’s history down to how it actually happened: One day at a time.

Think about that. When Maine turns 200 on March 15, it will have been a state for 73,050 days. Big news days, slow news days, and everything in between. Owen aims to distill all of that – along with noteworthy milestones in these parts from as far back as the 17th century – into at least one flash from the past for each day of the 2020 calendar year.

Joseph Owen Staff photo by Joe Phelan

“I think it’s important because we live in an age in which a lot of this information is disposable – and it shouldn’t be,” Owen said. “All of our lives are lived in the context of what happened in the past and if we don’t understand that context, we’re likely to make bad judgments about what to do next.”

Fires, floods and blizzards abound throughout the series because, as Owen correctly noted, “bad news makes news.”

Politics too, such as the day (Feb. 26, 1972) when then-Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie’s presidential hopes melted down in a snowstorm in Manchester, New Hampshire. As Owen wrote last week, “Snowflakes melting on (Muskie’s) face make it appear that he is crying and newspapers report that he was, damaging his image among voters who wonder whether he is stable enough to lead the country.”

Arts, culture, sports, you name it – it’s all part of a mosaic to which, I readily admit, I now find myself hopelessly addicted. Bringing it all further to life are the historical photos that accompany each installment, thanks to the painstaking work of Portland Press Herald database editor Julia McCue.

It all started last spring when a group of editors met to plan Masthead Maine’s bicentennial coverage. Owen, a Kennebec Journal editor and a longtime member and former president (twice) of the Kennebec Historical Society, was asked to participate.

At the time, Owen was looking forward to his late-July retirement after a 40-year journalism career with the Kennebec Journal, the Portland Press Herald and Stars and Stripes in both Europe and Asia.

“I suggested we do something every day of the year, thinking it was going to be a piece of cake,” he recalled.

It was – at first. But as his own memory started running dry, Owen soon found himself “bringing home wheelbarrows full of books” from the Maine State Library and the Lithgow Public Library in Augusta, squinting at fuzzy microfilms of Maine’s major newspapers, conferring with fellow historians to nail down this date or verify that old news account. All, we should note, on his own time.

Owen estimates that the series is now about 95 percent written. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive as it enters its third month, although Owen has heard from a nitpicker or two.

One complained that Owen shouldn’t be writing in the present tense about things that happened in the past.

“I don’t know what to say to that except it seemed to be a natural way to express it,” he said. “I’m writing it as though I’m writing it on the day when the event occurred.”

Another reader challenged Owen’s occasional sprinkling of recent events into the mix, such as the Jan. 2 anniversary of Gov. Janet Mills’ 2019 inauguration as Maine’s first female chief executive.

Owen’s response: “As soon as we hang up from this phone call, this phone call is history.” Besides, he noted, to a young Mainer reading this stuff 10, 20 or 30 years down the road, it won’t seem so current.

Which brings us to the book. Owen’s daily dispatches will be compiled, along with a few other historical tidbits, into a roughly 300-page opus to Maine scheduled for release on May 5 by Islandport Press in Yarmouth.

“We do a lot of Maine history books and Maine culture books, so it’s right in our sweet spot,” Islandport publisher Dean Lunt said on Friday. “Joe’s done a ton of research, so having that level of research from a reporter and copy editor with his background gives us a lot of confidence that it’s accurate. And it’s great.”

Heavy a lift that it’s been, Owen harbors no regrets. He can still remember, back when he worked overseas for Stars and Stripes from 1985 to 1998, how many people knew nothing about Maine other than that it had nasty winters and tasty lobsters.

“So, I found myself being an ambassador at times to explain who we are and what we do here,” he said. Now, as Maine turns 200, it’s only natural to wonder: Who were our forebears and what did they do here?

Fellow Mainers, if you haven’t been reading these gems, you don’t know what you’re missing. And if you’re wondering what comes next, future installments include the day the passenger ship Royal Tar burned and sank in Penobscot Bay with a whole circus full of animals aboard – some of the 32 people who died were crushed by a panicked elephant that crashed through the ship’s rail.

Then there was the day Carrie Nation took her temperance movement to Bangor and, as Owen put it, “made quite a scene up there.” Or the little-known (until now) fact that Bangor was originally supposed to be named Sunbury, a place where “some people (were) not of the best morals.”

In short, you can’t make this stuff up. That’s why, as I told my former colleague, I no longer digest my morning news feed from top to bottom. Rather, I immediately scroll downward, eager to open the latest window into our everyday past.

Replied Owen, “Mission accomplished.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.