GOULDBSORO, Maine — A rising chorus of acrimony over a famous ship’s bell, which has been ringing through town the past few months, could reach a crescendo this week at the annual town meeting.
On Wednesday, Gouldsboro voters are expected to decide what has been a hotly debated question since last winter: Should the town lend its renown bell to the Canadian History Museum?
Several residents, including a selectman, are in favor of lending the bell, while others are vehemently opposed. The bell, which some call Canada’s Liberty Bell, may not have a crack in it, but the question has created deep fissures between residents.
“Please vote to keep the bell in Prospect Harbor,” reads a flier opponents of the loan proposal posted around town.
The bell, on display at the local elementary school in the local village of Prospect Harbor, belonged to a now-lost ship that played an integral role in Canada’s confederation to become an independent nation in the 1860s. But for nearly 140 years, the approximately 19-inch diameter, 90-pound bell has been the legal property of the town of Gouldsboro.
Selectmen took up the matter this past winter, discussing the pros and cons of loaning the bell at several of their regular meetings. Several members of the board expressed mixed feelings, while others said they were against it. In March, they decided to put it out for a vote.
Roger Bowen, one of the town’s five selectmen, is a vocal proponent of lending the bell to the museum. A former head of the Milwaukee Natural History Museum, Bowen thinks loaning the bell will help draw positive attention to Gouldsboro. He said he has no concerns about getting it back.
“Yes, I am in favor of lending the bell,” Bowen said. “I think it is the neighborly thing to do. It costs us nothing, and in return it generates enormous goodwill.”
Beatrice Buckley, former president of the local historical society and a member of its board of directors, does not share Bowen’s point of view. She claims that since the 1960s, when the connection between the bell and Canada’s independence became known, there have been demands from Canadian authorities to return the bell across the border. She fears the bell never will be returned if it is loaned to the museum.
“They’ve tried to take it — twice,” Buckley said, referring to Canadian authorities. But each time, she added, local residents voted to keep it.
“The bell is a prominent symbol of Gouldsboro’s seafaring and shipbuilding heritage,” she said. “We won’t get it back.”
Buckley said she hopes there’s a big turnout at the town meeting and that everyone votes no.
“I’m going look [to see who votes yes], and then I’m going to turn around and tell them about it,” she said with a chuckle.
Though Buckley did not mention him by name, she had a few choice words for Bowen. She said some residents don’t fully appreciate the bell’s importance to the town’s history. People who grew up elsewhere and moved to Gouldsboro later in life and young people, Buckley said, are among those who favor letting the bell leave town — a claim Bowen calls a “red herring.”
“We have a selectperson who wants fame and glory,” Buckley said. “He’s behind the whole thing.”
Canadian officials say it is not exaggeration to compare the bell to the Liberty Bell, in terms of how both bells symbolize the births of their respective nations.
The bell in Gouldsboro, engraved with the name of the ship, was on the S.S. Queen Victoria in 1864 when leaders of what were then colonial provinces of the United Kingdom met onboard while the ship was anchored in the harbor of Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss whether to unite and form a federal government.
According to Mark O’Neill, president and CEO of the Canadian History Museum, those talks laid the foundation of an agreement that resulted in Canada’s independence in 1867.
“The ship played a major, major role in the history of Canada,” O’Neill said.
The Queen Victoria’s days were numbered, however. Two years later, before Canada’s confederation agreement went into effect, the ship foundered off the coast of North Carolina en route home from Cuba. The ship, battered by a passing hurricane, took on water and began to sink.
A nearby American ship, the Ponvert, captained by Gouldsboro native Rufus Allen, came to its aid and rescued the crew before the Queen Victoria went down. Out of gratitude, they brought the ship’s bell with them as they boarded Ponvert and gave it to Allen.
In 1875, Allen gave the bell to his hometown, which used it as a school bell in the old Prospect Harbor schoolhouse until the 1950s. The Prospect Harbor Women’s Club then kept and maintained the bell for several years. But, after concerns arose about the bell’s security, it was kept for a while under lock and key in the vault at the local town office.
O’Neill said he understands why Gouldsboro residents are proud of their bell. If his museum, which he compared to the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., gets to borrow the bell, it will include information about Gouldsboro in the exhibit. He said the museum would fully insure the bell and guarantee its return in writing, which is routine for how major museums worldwide handle such artifacts.
He added there are not many items that have historical significance to the founding of Canada, which makes the bell “critically important” to the exhibit.
“I understand, fully and completely, how zealously people guard that bell. And, frankly, I think it’s a positive thing,” O’Neill said. “This is a huge national museum. We take our role and mandates and partnerships very seriously.”
Whatever the outcome of Wednesday’s vote, the local debate is doubling as an educational opportunity. On Thursday, Buckley and Rosemary West, another Gouldsboro resident opposed to loaning the bell, spoke to a sixth-grade class at Peninsula Bell about its history.
But not all pupils at the school are familiar with its significance. A handful of eighth-graders who posed by the bell for a photo said they didn’t realize it was Canada’s version of the Liberty Bell.
One of them, Andrew Moshier, joked that if the town loaned the bell to the museum, they should charge the museum money and use the funds to build an indoor basketball court at the school. His classmate Emma Bunch quickly disagreed.
“We should keep it,” she said.