DETROIT, Maine — Fire and time have claimed many historic buildings in New England and the tiny Somerset County town of Detroit has not been spared. But standing tall, near the center of town, is the Detroit Meeting House, formerly a church built in 1866.
Its walls are solid; its steeple, although abbreviated, is strong; its 10 large, stained glass windows throw brilliant colors throughout the interior. That it has endured for 142 years is nothing less than stunning, and a small group of local volunteers is working hard to maintain the meeting house for future generations.
“This is really the heritage, the history of the town,” Joan Bradley, a member of the Detroit Meeting House Committee, said Thursday. “Even if it sat here and no one used it, it would be so important to maintain it. This is the only historic public building left in Detroit.”
Here is some perspective: When the building was under construction in 1866, the Jesse James gang was robbing its first bank in Missouri. The first nickel was minted. Andrew Johnson was president. Two of the most popular songs of the day were “Father’s a Drunkard and Mother Is Dead,” and “Goober Peas.” The eight-hour work day was proposed for the first time, horses still provided virtually all the power for urban transit and for agricultural production, and Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Sour Mash whiskey was first introduced at Lynchburg.
After the townspeople of Detroit jointly built the meeting house, it first served as a Union Church, open to all denominations, Bradley said. In the 1940s it became a United Methodist Church and was a vital part of the community, home to weddings, funerals, gatherings and celebrations. But a cash-strapped Methodist Conference opted to no longer support the church in 1999.
“We were afraid it would fall into private hands, be torn down and lost,” Bradley said. So the people of Detroit raised the $5,000 necessary to purchase it.
“We’re small but mighty,” DMHC member Rebecca Greene said Thursday as a small group toured the building.
After only two or three minutes inside, the memories were resurrected and the stories began. “We’ve had people come through and burst into tears when they begin to remember special events held here in the past,” Bradley said.
About 30 local people belong to the restoration group and throughout the year hold a series of yard sales, public suppers and open houses, as well as sell an annual historical calendar to raise funds for restoration.
Crumbling doors have been replaced, a bathroom — the first — was installed (by two local men who attended Sunday school at the church as children), electrical work was upgraded, landscaping and paving completed, and the exterior was painted. Upcoming projects include replacing the Plexiglas that protects the stained glass windows.
Meanwhile, Bradley explained, the committee’s goal is to maintain the meeting house as a local historical building while still providing a gathering place for the community. The building can be used for weddings, funerals and other gatherings. The committee will even cater small events held there.
Raising funds is even more important this year, DMHC president Lois Trafton said, because this is the first year that the town has not paid the utilities on the building. “We are really looking for younger people, people who grew up using this building, to get involved,” Trafton said.
Anyone wishing to volunteer or make a donation may call Trafton at 257-2321 or at 97 Field Road, Detroit, ME 04929.