By David M. Fitzpatrick
Of The Weekly Staff
The Dixmont Historical Society, with the help of hundreds of donors and volunteers, just capped seven years of restoration efforts. And everyone is excited, because the historic Town House is back in business.
“It’s not a fancy building,” said Judy Cook of the society, “but it is part of Dixmont’s history.”
The post-and-beam structure was built in 1836 on land donated by John Alexander Harris, the grandson of Elijah Dix, for whom the town was named. It served as the community center for well over a century. Town meetings were held there until the 1930s, when they were relocated to the Grange hall, which had a kitchen. A fire there moved the town meetings back to the Town House, where the last one was held in 1952. After that, it was used for dances, meetings, wedding receptions and community events.
But its use decreased, and it fell into disrepair for decades. By the 2000s, it was in bad shape, with substantial inside deterioration, a leaky roof and the slow collapse of the granite-topped fieldstone foundation, as well as infestations by bats, squirrels and honeybees.
“The building was falling down,” said Cook. “It really was going down fast. It looked terrible from the road. There had been some talk around about just tearing it down.”
Some wanted to save it; many thought the needed renovations would cost hundreds of thousands. Indeed, the estimate for the foundation repair alone was $50,000. But some people believed it had to be salvaged.
“I’m in favor of saving any piece of history that you have,” Cook said. “Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
The hope is to revive its use for community functions, demonstrate the building styles of the 1800s and educate schoolchildren about what town meetings were like.
The fund-raising began with a capital campaign in 2006 to first fix the roof, with ongoing fundraisers afterward, such as benefit suppers and raffles. The society also received a vital $9,500 grant from Central Maine Power as a trade-off to a powerline project that affected views of properties along the line.
Approximately, 122 donors have given money, supplies and 3,409 hours of time so far. Of those hours, 1,885 were from inmates with the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Department Community Works program. Without that help, Cook said, the Town House wouldn’t be anywhere near where it is now.
“We’d still be back putting on the roof,” she said.
The inmates came out for one week each spring and one week each summer since 2009 to get the work done. In addition to cutting brush, clearing trees, carpentry, painting, repairing shutters and doors, and installing molding and baseboard, they did all the foundation work. With just $2,500 in materials for the foundation, the free labor made shoring up the entire project possible.
The original floor planks had to be removed so workers could get under the building to fix the foundation; the planks were replaced afterward. Meanwhile, most of the old windows were repaired; three were irreparable, but a glazier recreated their look with replacement windows.
Despite the roof and foundation, the Town House was in remarkable shape for its age. After plenty of interior remodeling and a fresh coat of paint, it’s like a new building. There are still a few minor things to be done, and Cook would like to heat the building soon so that it can be used in the spring and fall. Down the road, she’d like to build an addition to include an archival room, a meeting room and restrooms. For now, she’ll appreciate the successes from everyone’s seven years of hard work — with a price tag of just under $21,000.
“I am delighted,” she said. “I could take it one piece at a time and say, ‘Okay, it’s coming, it’s coming;’ you could see the progress. But to have it painted and have it look as good as it does — I am thrilled.”
She’s not the only one. She’s heard a lot from the older set in Dixmont — many of whom remember the Town House in its heyday.
“So many people have said to me, ‘I remember coming when I was a kid, I came with my mom to a dance here’ or ‘I remember I went to Boy Scouts here,’” Cook said. “You get a lot of that, which is really rewarding.”