Down East 2013 ©
Sometimes dire circumstances can have encouraging results. Such is the case with Montpelier, the 1930s replica of General Henry Knox’s post-Revolutionary War retirement home in Thomaston. Two years ago, as a state-run museum, the regal old mansion showed the ravages of time and the effects of state budget shortfalls. Paint was peeling everywhere, water stains were spreading down walls, and the magnificent front steps were rotting. Visitors stayed away in droves (Down East, September, 1994), and there was talk of razing the building.
Now state officials and small museums around Maine are paying close attention to the Route 1 landmark’s resurgence through the efforts of the Friends of Montpelier, a private organization of 130 volunteers that has given the house a new lease on life. Attendance soared from 1,000 in 1994 to 9,000 in 1995 and is on track for another record this year, and the group has transformed the mansion into a local cultural center. “If we can prove that we can successfully keep the old house open as a museum,” says Eve Anderson, of the Friends of Montpelier, “the state will turn over to us both the building and the many priceless Knox family artifacts inside.”
The state agreed to the privatization experiment in 1994 in an effort to save the house from demolition or being turned into an office building. “It was horrible to think of the general’s Waterford crystal chandeliers being replaced by overhead fluorescent lighting,” Anderson sighs. The Friends not only undertook a dramatic cosmetic overhaul, they also revolutionized Montpelier’s local image, putting together new tours that shed light on the general’s pivotal, but nearly forgotten, role in the Revolution and opening the historic home to weddings, business meetings, and special events. This summer’s schedule includes band concerts, a Revolutionary-era fashion show, a Celtic music festival September 22, and a harvest festival October 13.
The Friends are now raising money for a full-time director, although the organization still relies on dedicated volunteers, some putting in thirty or forty hours a week, to keep Montpelier up and running. Even the tours are led by volunteers, each of whom specializes in various aspects of Knox’s life and home, from the turbulent times in which the old soldier lived and the major battles he helped win to the 100 servants it took to run his extensive estate. “We don’t want to have people just come once — we want them to keep coming back for more,” Eve Anderson declares. No doubt the original master of the nineteen-room house built when Maine was little more than a frontier felt the same way.
(Published September 1996)