14 January 2007

History displaced

Or how we ended up in the graveyard this morning by Jeanne Adams

My sister Jenna is reading a book, fiction based on fact, about a fishing village off the coast of Maine. As she was relating the story I recognized the tale. That's how we ended up at the Webber Cemetery, in New Gloucester, Maine during a snowstorm this morning.

Headstones tell a tale of endings. One at a time, people die. Excepting tragic accidents, we die one at a time.

Nine small white headstones stand in a row shrouded with a dusting of snow under gray sky. On each only a name and date of death. On each, that date is Nov. 1912. One stone lists five children, another three. One stone is for a couple. All in all, 17 people share a death date, all in a row.

They are tucked away, at the edge of a wood, behind a bigger cemetery.

But this isn't a secret borne in New Gloucester, it's a secret borne by New Gloucester.

The graves mark the final resting place of people who were forcibly removed from their homes and committed to the Pownal School for the Feeble Minded.

In 1912, Maine's Gov. Plaisted ordered the removal of the inhabitants of Malaga Island, a mixed race community just off the coast of Phippsberg, mid-coast Maine.

Malaga was a poor fishing community, and both blacks and whites were settled there. Interracial marriage was common on the island. In 1900 there were 42 individuals on the island. The towns of Phippsburg and Harpswell refused to claim the island, neither wanting to accept responsibility for the welfare of the islanders. It was a "no-mans land" and Malaga became a ward of the state. Maine was 99% white and newspaper accounts of the day sensationalized the race issue, blaming dark skin for all sorts of ills, including idleness, poverty and immorality. A combination of events, including the rise of tourism and competition for the local fishing grounds caused the state to step in with a solution to the Malaga "problem".

The people were forcibly removed, their shanty homes destroyed. Some residents floated their shanties up and down the New Meadows River, but no community would have them.

Even the island cemetary was desecrated - all remains were placed in 5 zinc-lined coffins and buried in the New Gloucester cemetary.

In spite of grandiose plans, the island never sported a fancy hotel and in fact, has remained uninhabited to this day.

This information is all available on the web, what I need to find out now, is WHY and HOW did the 17 people from Malaga Island die so soon after arriving at Pineland? I haven't been able to find out.

The book Jenna was reading is for the progam where she mentors a younger girl. It is called "Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy" by Gary D. Schmidt. It's fiction based on real events. He says that Lizzie Bright Griffin lived only 10 days after arriving at the Pownal School for the Feebleminded.

In recent years, Malaga has trickled into the media from time to time and more information pops up on the internet. The School for the Feebleminded is now a pristine and beautiful business campus with beautiful views, a YMCA, a school and arts center.

Photos by Jeanne Adams. In the top photo, are stones for residents of Pineland. The Malaga stones are centered in the first row at the top of the photo. Midddle photo: one of the stones dated Nov. 12. Here is the plaque at the cemetery;

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

what a wild story - hey, where's the art? more artwork, please. maybe some books...