SEARSPORT, Maine — Charlene Farris loves a good historical mystery.
As town historian, she stumbled upon and solved a big one more than 20 years ago — why the marble tablet bearing the names of veterans on Searsport’s Civil War monument had been reversed so the names couldn’t be read. Farris first heard about the hidden names in 1982, and through research, discovered that during that war some men hired others to take their place in the conflict.
Farris concluded that the name of one man killed in the war was incorrect — the replacement died, not the man who hired him, whose name was carved on the monument. The apparent embarrassment — probably of a prominent citizen — of being alive while his name was on the monument among the dead resulted in the tablet being reversed.
In 1990, the town turned the tablet back around so the names could be read.
More recently, her attention turned to a World War II monument that disappeared from town four decades ago. The memorial listing the names of all those who served in that war has been gone since the early 1970s.
“Apparently, I have a thing about soldiers and monuments,” Farris joked.
On July 4 this year, while selling raffle tickets at the town’s holiday celebration in the downtown, “A man came up to my sister and asked her what happened to the old white [World War II] monument,” she recalled.
Though Farris grew up in town, she said, “I had forgotten all about it.” But after being reminded, she remembered it being there when she was a child. It was gone when Farris returned to Searsport after college in 1976 and began teaching in the elementary school.
The monument, which looked like a wooden billboard, once stood between the Methodist church and the Civil War monument. It included a painting of a ship, which is Searsport’s unofficial emblem as home to so many 19th-century ship captains, and it ilisted the name of every man who served during the war.
Subsequent sleuthing revealed that the monument had been installed in 1945, but that in 1973 the Searsport Community Betterment group took it down and replaced it with a monument simply honoring those who served in all wars, without names.
That decision seemed disrespectful to Farris.
“So many of the people’s names on there were living at the time,” she said. “My dad’s name was on there,” though it hadn’t occurred to her when she launched her investigation.
Today, Farris has identified at least four men whose names were on the memorial who are still living. She also tracked down the remnants of the memorial itself in the historical society building basement. Some of the names were blurred or weathered on the wood, but using a magnifying glass and with some help from the town library, she was able to identify all 173.
The painting part of the old memorial has been salvaged and is being held at a local antique store.
Farris’ plan is to raise money to have a bronze plaque made with all the names on it and, along with the painting of the ship, mount it in Union Hall, which is the town office building. Farris spoke with Town Manager James Gillway about her idea, and he was supportive, as were selectmen.
“They were all very enthusiastic about it,” she said.
At the annual town meeting in March, a warrant article raising $1,500 will be put before residents. The town historical society must raise an additional $1,500. Smith’s Memorials, a Searsport business, has agreed to make the bronze plaque with the World War II veterans’ names at cost, estimated at $3,000.
And on Friday, Dec. 7 — Pearl Harbor Day — Farris will be at Tozier’s grocery store seeking donations. Family members of those who served may want to donate in their honor, she said. Farris also hopes anyone with a photo of the old memorial or who knows of other Searsport World War II veterans who are still alive will contact her.
When the plaque and painting are ready, Farris hopes to install them in the main meeting room on the second floor of Union Hall in a ceremony at the town’s Fourth of July event. This time, it will be bolted to a wall.