PARIS HILL — On Saturday, in this tiny village of well-preserved historic homes, people can watch the Maine State Cake Decorating Championship, compete in a sack race, play cow pie bingo or chat with a 1950s TV icon known to millions as the Beaver, all just a few steps from the boyhood home of a former vice president.

The second annual Hannibal Hamlin Birthday Celebration is a mix of 19th-century history and 20th-century nostalgia aimed at helping this sleepy village survive in the 21st century and beyond.

Hamlin was born Aug. 27, 1809, just a few feet from the Paris Hill common and grew up to become one of the most-accomplished Maine politicians of his time. He served in Congress and as governor, was a strong abolitionist voice in the U.S. Senate before the Civil War and helped Abraham Lincoln win the presidency as his running mate. Today, he’s best-known, if at all, as the answer to a trivia question “Who was Lincoln’s first vice president?” Lincoln’s second vice president, Andrew Johnson, has a little more fame since he became president after Lincoln was assassinated and later was impeached.

The event Saturday will raise funds for the maintenance of the 184-year-old First Baptist Church building, which is one of about a dozen village properties that collectively are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Located just a couple of miles off busy Route 26, Paris Hill residents say they know people in neighboring Norway and South Paris who have never been here. They’d love people to discover the village and come back for future fundraisers, as residents grapple with the financial upkeep of historic homes and buildings.

“It’s a herculean effort for the people who live here to keep these old buildings in good shape. We have to raise every dollar we spend, so we need events like this,” said Kevin Carleton, president of the Friends of the First Baptist Church of Paris Maine and a 42-year resident of the town. “Working to keep up these historic buildings is something people here are passionate about.”

Linda Richardson, a member of Friends of the First Baptist Church, in Paris Hill, who thinks events like Saturday’s Hannibal Hamlin birthday celebration will help preservation efforts. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

One of the ways organizers hope to attract people to the free event Saturday, besides offering old-fashioned family entertainment and a dose of Maine history, is by offering the chance to meet a celebrity. Jerry Mathers, the star of the ever-popular sitcom “Leave It To Beaver,” will be at the party from 1-3 p.m., chatting and signing autographs. The show ran from 1957 to 1963 but can still be seen in reruns on the MeTV network.

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OLD-FASHIONED FUN WITH A SERIOUS PURPOSE

Event organizers admit Mathers, 74, and his show about childhood in the late ’50s and early ‘6os have little to do with Hamlin or Paris Hill. But they were looking for a celebrity who might have broad appeal and was willing to come to their shindig. Gary Bahre, whose family has owned and lived in Hamlin’s childhood home since the early 1970s and who is a big fan of the show, suggested Mathers, who makes appearances at events all around the country. So the organizers asked, and he accepted.

Jerry Mathers will be a special guest at the Hannibal Hamlin Birthday Celebration in Paris Hill on Saturday. Photo courtesy of Jerry Mathers

Speaking from his home in the Los Angeles area, Mathers admitted he knew nothing about Hamlin and is no history buff. But he loves the idea of a small-town event with sack races and pie-eating contests. It sounds like something the Beaver would have loved, too.

“I think events like that are wonderful. It’s free. And it’s a really beautiful place,” said Mathers, who visited Paris Hill last year at the Bahres’ invitation. “I love to be able to meet new friends and talk to people about the show.”

At least part of the inspiration to create an annual Hamlin birthday party came from a painting owned by one village family, which shows a big county fair with loads of people on the Paris Hill common sometime in the 1800s. Villagers thought that replicating something like that as a celebration of the town’s most famous son would be a way to draw people, especially kids. Organizers held the first of what they hope are annual Hamlin celebrations last year, on his 212th birthday. Before that, the village had celebrated Hamlin on his 100th, 150th and 200th birthdays.

Last year’s Hamlin event raised about $7,500 for the church, from raffles, contest fees and donations. Saturday’s event is scheduled from noon to 6 p.m. Some of the other activities and entertainment include wagon rides, a pie-eating contest, digging for Maine gems, the Nevaeh Dance Circus, the Hadacol Bouncers jazz band, games, food vendors, a display with information on Hamlin’s life and a parade around the common. Some locals will be dressed in 19th-century attire.

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Guests can converse with Hamlin, too, in a way. Actor Paul Menezes, who played Hamlin at last year’s party, will reprise his role, strolling the grounds and greeting folks, dressed in period clothing. Though he grew up in Windham, Menezes, 56, said he knew little about Hamlin when he took the gig. While doing research, he’s been impressed with Hamlin’s long list of accomplishments and importance nationally. Hamlin grew up in Paris Hill but spent most of his adult life either in Washington, D.C., or in Bangor. Menezes says he portrays Hamlin as “a happy, positive person,” as you might expect someone to be on the day they are being feted in their hometown.

Some other recent events aimed at raising money for preservation and upkeep of Paris Hill’s historic properties include a village yard sale held in June to benefit the Paris Hill Community Club, which maintains the Paris Hill Academy building, circa 1856, and the annual Founder’s Day Classic Car Exhibit, held in July, which raised money for the Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum, housed in the 1822 jail building. Earlier in August, the Paris Hill Music Festival was held for the fifth year, featuring Maine funk band Motor Booty Affair and other groups playing outdoors at the Paris Hill Country Club, with proceeds helping both the Friends of the First Baptist Church and local 4-H youths.

Hamlin Memorial Library and Museum in Paris Hill, housed in the former jail, is one of the historic properties surrounding the village common. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

LOCAL YOUTH MAKES GOOD

The village of Paris Hill is about 800 feet above sea level, about a 75-minute drive northwest of Portland. From Hamlin’s boyhood home, built in 1805, there’s a dramatic view of the White Mountains, including 6,200-foot-tall Mount Washington in New Hampshire. When driving on busy Route 26 past the car dealers, modular home sellers and other businesses in the Norway–South Paris area, it’s hard to imagine that a picture-book version of a 19th-century village is just a 2-mile drive off the state highway.

But once in the village, it’s easy to see what the area’s claim to fame is. The street that surrounds the common on three sides is named Hannibal Hamlin Drive. Across from Hamlin’s birthplace is a large rock sitting on the common’s grass, with a plaque noting his accomplishments and that he was born “near this spot.” The plaque was dedicated on his 100th birthday, in 1909. Very near the green is the town library and history museum, named for Hamlin.

His family home is a private residence. Bob Bahre, former owner of Oxford Plains Speedway and founder of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, bought the house in the early 1970s and was only its fourth owner. Bahre died in 2020 at age 93, but family members still live in the house and are active in village preservation and fundraising efforts. The house originally had a wraparound porch, but a previous owner took that off, added columns and gave the house a much more formal appearance.

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Other than looking at the historic buildings, there’s not much else for a tourist or visitor to do, unless an event is happening. There are no shops to browse and few businesses. Standing at the Hamlin plaque on the common, visitors see very little that reflects the 21st century.

Hannibal Hamlin grew up in Paris Hill but spent much of his adult life elsewhere. Photo courtesy of the Paris Hill Historical Society

Paris Hill is a village in the town of Paris, which was incorporated in 1793 and named as a tribute to France’s military aid in the American Revolution. The village was the seat of Oxford County from 1805 until 1895, making it the center of government, law and civic life, said Rosemary Losso of the Paris Hill Historical Society. Hamlin’s father, Cyrus Hamlin, was a doctor and a sheriff, so young Hannibal would have been exposed to the movers and shakers of his day, Losso said.

“With the house being right on the green, there were always people coming and going. Lawyers were always coming over to use Cyrus Hamlin’s library,” said Losso, 65, who moved to town five years ago from Massachusetts after taking a job at furniture maker Thos. Moser in Auburn. “There would have always been interesting people staying there, and that had a big influence on him.”

Hamlin decided to become a lawyer himself and trained in a Portland law office. He never attended law school, which was not uncommon among lawyers at that time, said H. Draper Hunt of South Portland, professor emeritus of history at the University of Southern Maine and author of the book “Hannibal Hamlin of Maine: Lincoln’s First Vice-President.”

Hamlin was politically ambitious and, after working as a lawyer, was elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1835, when he was still in his 20s. He won election to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1843 to 1847 before being selected by the state Legislature to fill a U.S. Senate vacancy in 1848. He later won the seat on his own and served more than 20 years in the Senate, including two terms after he was vice president.

Hamlin gained national political stature as an outspoken abolitionist, Hunt said, and he was one of the first prominent Democrats in the Senate who left the party over the slavery issue and joined the new Republican Party, which was founded in the mid-1850s. His reputation and popularity led to a very short stint as governor of Maine, a position he never wanted.

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Maine Republicans, wanting to make sure a member of their party won the governor’s office as national tensions over slavery increased and the possibility of war loomed, asked Hamlin to run in 1856. He said he would, for the party’s sake, but only if the state Legislature agreed to appoint him back to the U.S. Senate and then allow another Republican to fill the governor’s role.

“He was kind of a wheeler-dealer,” Hunt said. “He never wanted to be governor. He thought he could do more, especially about slavery, in the Senate.”

He was picked as Lincoln’s running mate in 1860, partly because as a former Democrat he might convince other anti-slavery Democrats to support Lincoln. He also provided regional balance to the ticket, being from a far eastern state while Lincoln was from the western state of Illinois, Hunt said. But vice presidents in that era were much less involved with day-to-day governing, and Hamlin hated the inactivity. He spent much of his term on his Bangor-area farm, digging potatoes and pitching hay, and for a time while vice president he also served in a Maine militia group tasked with guarding the coast during the Civil War, Hunt said. He served as a cook, Losso said.

With the Civil War still raging as the 1864 election approached, Lincoln and his inner circle decided to drop Hamlin from the ticket in favor of Andrew Johnson, with the hope he would help broaden the ticket’s appeal and signal the beginnings of a national reconciliation. Johnson was a Democrat and a Southerner, but had been loyal to the Union as military governor of Tennessee. When Lincoln was assassinated in 1865, Johnson became president and was later seen as an appeaser of Southern interests after the war – interests that blocked efforts at racial equality and social progress.

CarlaRose Dubois, left, and Rosemary Losso pose in 1860s-style dresses outside the former home of Hannibal Hamlin in Paris Hill. They’ll be among locals dressed in period clothing for a Hamlin birthday celebration on Saturday. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

After his term as vice president, Hamlin was re-elected to the U.S. Senate and served as ambassador to Spain. Of course, if Hamlin had been Lincoln’s vice president for a second term, he could have become president when Lincoln was killed. In that case, his boyhood Paris Hill home would be considered a presidential birthplace and likely would have become a tourist attraction. Hamlin died in 1891.

As the area developed in the later 1800s, the railroad bypassed Paris Hill and instead ran through what is now South Paris, still in the town of Paris, but a couple of miles south on the Little Androscoggin River. As South Paris became the center of  business and transportation in the town, the county seat was also moved there, in the 1890s. The loss of commerce and political activity meant that Paris Hill became stuck in time. Losing the county seat, residents say, helped preserve the town’s 19th-century character, since there was little incentive for new development. While the old jail is now the library, other former county buildings, including the former sheriff’s house, court house and county records building, are now all privately owned.

One of the birthday celebration volunteers, Linda Richardson, 69, was born in Paris Hill, and her ancestors were among the town’s founding families. A retired operating room technician, Richardson says the village looks very much the way it did when she was growing up. Families with young children have moved into the village in recent years, and she hopes its history and charm will stay intact for future generations.

“I want to be involved in things like this because I want to save my town,” said Richardson, standing inside the First Baptist Church, under an area of the ceiling where water from a leak in the steeple had caused considerable damage. “I’m passionate about all the ways we can do that.”

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