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Old Fort Western in Augusta, Maine: An Oft Missed Pleasure


Located on the eastern banks of the Kennebec River in Augusta, Maine off Freeway 95 (the northerly reaches of 495 and 295), Old Fort Western (Fort Western) is an Historic Site that harkens back to the French Indian, or Seven Year, War. Named after a friend of the Governor Shirley of Massachusetts, it is unique for its private proprietorship, which permitted a series of historic metamorphoses otherwise impossible.

Fort Western lies almost exactly in the heart of Augusta, as the city spreads out both east and west of the Kennebec River (there are a couple of nice hotels in Augusta but very little else of note besides the fort). An Historic Site with a long and complicated history, Fort Western houses displays from three parts of that history, and a section representing a fourth is in active use for school program and general group tour hands-on style demonstrations. The fort building, a long rectangular structure, and the surrounding grounds were reclaimed by well-wishers and the City of Augusta, which now owns it, and restored back to several of its original historic periods and purposes.

Despite the function of Fort Western as a military fort, beginning with its erection in 1754, it has served many historical purposes, a fact made possible because it was not built by the colonial government nor by the British government. It was built, rather, by what we, today, would call a private syndicate of real estate developers who were acting to further the ends of the colonial government. Hence, the reconstructed guard houses, one of which is complete with fireable cannons and muskets, represent the French Indian War period. The middle interior of Fort Western, which has unplastered walls, ceilings and floors showing the original building materials, represents the next period in which this non-governmental fort was used as a shop for the surrounding settlers. The north end of the Fort Western shows the later 1700’s when this portion of the unique fort was used as a private residence for one of the premier Augusta families, the Howards. This northern section is set up as an authentic museum of family rooms, as recorded in various wills, tax records, and census reports, which you can admire from behind draped ropes. The spare-looking furnishings, many of which are the authentic and original Howard family belongings, are very chic for their time period and some are indisputably beautiful, such as the period and original hand-carved mahogany desk built near Boston.

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A Fort Western visiting experience can vary with the time of year and with the historical interpreters on duty. Also, in keeping with the seasons, these historical interpreters, whose duty it is to explain to visitors the significance and meaning of the historic facts and artifacts, would be dressed in handmade and authentically period clothes, some of them quite pleasant and impressive.

As an example of experiences varying with the time of year, if you wish to visit in winter, it would be on the first Tuesday of a given month and you would be greeted by a collection of interpreters in a room with a fire lit and doors shut. Here, you would first watch some small demonstration, such as hand quilting on a quilting frame, and participate as you desire. This room would be in the south end of the fort building, which is the end restored to the historical records of the 1800’s and reserved for school programs and visitor participation activities. Then you would be led on a mini-tour of the interior portions, which suffer from dark and cold in the winter months.

If, on the other hand, you visit in the summer, you will find an historical interpreter posted at each of the four major time period sections, and these interpreters will tell you the relevant information pertinent to that point in history and that display. There may even be outdoor displays in the parade grounds, such as nails being pounded at a handmade forge or stew being cooked over an outdoor fire or a felled tree being hand-hewn to the shape of a post. Additionally, the hundreds of artifacts on display, including pins with wound copper heads and a boar’s bristle tooth brush (sans bristles), were collected from digs on Fort Western premises, primarily during reconstruction when the Parade Grounds were lowered from their 20th century to their original 18th century level.

As to the second factor effecting variation in visiting experiences, it is clear that interaction with historical interpreters varies per season, changing the kind of visit likely to be had. But the difference the interpreters make goes farther than that. Fort Western interpreters are, I suppose, understandably not on par with those in places like DC or its environs. Fort Western interpreters are too personal in their approach and have too many entrenched personal perspectives, objectives and preferences, with too little respect for the visitor’s time, interest (disinterest) and annoyance level. As a result, the discussion is not objective but subjective and contem-poraneously personal (like where they live and what their current hobbies are), and it can be tediously boring as they list the names of the hundreds of artifacts on display. Further, some are sadly uncomprehending of the larger significance of the facts – regardless of extensive training in those facts – so that if asked a question, they cannot elaborate and provide an explanation but can only repeat what has already been said, a statement which was obviously inadequate first time around (like the old Edgar Bergan-Charlie McCarthy gag: “Its a vision.” “Oh. What’s a vision?” “It’s like a mirage.” “Oh. What’s a mirage?” “It’s like a vision.” “Oh. You wanna go round again?” ). But Fort Western need not be abandoned just because of this; the problem of interpreters can be gotten around and it does not outweigh the value of a visit to Fort Western.

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This negative aspect of interpreter inadequacy need not be a limiting factor that prevents a visit. Indeed not. If you are prepared – and now you are – for gab-a-lots and for the disappointment of insufficiently answered questions, you can tactfully say things like, “The artifacts are well and good, but what I really want to know is why there is a shop in a military fort,” or “I’m glad to know about your personal life, but I really want to know about the size of these pine boards,” or, “This takes only 45 minutes, you said, so we’d best be hurrying along, so I can actually see the things you’re telling me about them!” In other words, be prepared to manage your wayward interpreters with gentle firmness.

Historical significance relating to Fort Western places it right atop the time -line divide between the colonial period and Independence. Consequently, much can be learned from the family structure and life events of the Howards who peopled the household rooms of the north end of the fort building. Further historical significance attaches, not only through the French Indian War and the expansion of settlement permitted by the protection afforded by Fort Western, but also because of a documented stop-over made by Benedict Arnold on his ill-fated march to Quebec with his infamous bateaux. Additionally, Fort Western has a place of prominence in two books, one a fiction, the other a celebrated nonfiction. The first is the Pulitzer Prize winner, Arundel (which I have never admired), by Kenneth Lewis Roberts. The latter is the anthropological/sociological gem A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. Martha Ballard, of course, lived in Augusta, and her diary makes many references to Fort Western and the Howard family, including references to who came over to bake bread in Mrs. Howard’s bake oven (because of the cost of building a bake oven, which had to be supported by an additional brick arch “down cellar,” many people had only an open fire for cooking and, hence, would borrow the use of a neighbor’s bake oven on baking day).

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Fort Western, or, more properly, Old Fort Western, the Historic Site – inadequate interpreters notwithstanding – is a wonderful and refreshing place to visit. Many people who go once become friends of Fort Western for life and return time and again, especially those interested in river kayaking and, or, in colonial period reenactments, as Fort Western hosts both a kayak-run down the Kennebec River and a weekend bivouac reenactment. Because of the fort’s originsn, it represents a unique instance in colonial military fort history. Because of the fort’s tenacious survival, it offers a lovely exploration, beside the banks of the tidal-water Kennebec River, which is informative, expansive of understanding (even more so if you chance on the rare enlightened interpreter), and pleasantly, as I said, refreshing. I go to visit Fort Western as often as I can, as do many national and international vacationers. I suggest you endeavor to visit Fort Western in Augusta, Maine, off of 95, also. You will be glad to have had the experience.