The state of Maine is observing its bicentennial in 2020, but a town on the state’s eastern coast held its own 200th birthday celebration 24 years ago.
Castine, Maine is one of the oldest communities in North America, having been the site of a fortified trading post in 1613. Castine was not officially incorporated until 1796 however, because, according to Paige Lilly, curator of the Castine Historical Society, “In the eyes of Massachusetts law (Maine statehood was 1820 and prior to that time it was considered part of Massachusetts) a community had to have a certain number of families with ‘improved’ land and a ‘settled protestant minister’ to petition the Commonwealth to be an official town.”
And so it was that in 1996, Castine celebrated its bicentennial, and a group of some 60 members of the community got together to commemorate the event with the creation of a special quilt.
Measuring 24 feet in length, it is more accurately described as a quilted mural. The piece details the history of Castine from its earliest-known indigenous residents to modern times and it was intended from the outset to be a community memorial. The quilt features seven appliquéd blocks that present a timeline of Castine, topped with an embroidered description of the depicted scene.
These blocks are separated by eight panels appliquéd with the native flora and fauna of the Maine Coast. Above the panels are the flags that have flown over Castine during various times in its long history. Castine’s strategic location on the Penobscot Bay (an inlet of the Gulf of Maine and Atlantic Ocean) has made it a hub of maritime activity and this is detailed in a strip that runs the length of the quilt showing all the watercraft, from Native American canoes to Maine Maritime Academy’s training ship, State of Maine that have been an integral part of the community’s story. Arched borders above and below the entire piece symbolize the world and universe.
Because the winters are long and harsh in Castine, the community essentially has two populations: those who live there year-round and those who live there seasonally. The “season” in Castine runs from May to September, and it is during that time that the quilt is on public display on the ground floor of the Abbott School Building, a structure built in 1859 that is maintained by the Castine Historical Society.
A group of Historical Society volunteers takes down the quilt each fall, and they carefully roll it around a big tube and then cover it in sheets to let it rest for the winter. Each May, they bring it out again and re-hang it. This procedure has been unfailingly followed for every year since 1996—except one.
“One year we needed the space for another exhibition and so we took down the quilt,” recalls Paige. “That was when we learned how important the quilt is to the community. We had people who travelled here specifically to see the quilt, or people who had worked on it as school children and were disappointed that they were unable to view it when they were here. They definitely let us know about it! The quilt has a real community connection—people see it as a monument to Castine.”
The Castine Bicentennial Quilt is beautifully done with excellent craftsmanship throughout. The fact that so many people, including women, men and even children in Girl Scouts, 4-H members and high school, took part in its creation makes the overall achievement all the more remarkable. It truly was a fitting birthday present to the community and one that will be enjoyed for many more birthdays to come.