From scrimshaw to peapods, marine museum covers it all
It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child.
For the town of Searsport, located about 45 minutes west of Ellsworth, it involved an entire community to build and sail schooners and other vessels.
Founded in 1936, the Penobscot Marine Museum’s mission is to preserve and share this port’s and Maine’s rich maritime history spanning more than two centuries.
“We can claim up to 500 sea captains from this town,” museum interpreter Carmen McLaughlin said. “At one point, 10 percent of America’s captains came from this tiny little town. We were known around the world back in the day.”
Built around 1826, Captain Jeremiah Merithew and his wife Jane’s Federal-style brick home stands out among the 13 buildings scattered around the museum’s campus.
The Merithew family’s house is at the heart of what the museum has dubbed “Seaport Village.” Eight of the buildings on the property are listed on the National Register of Historic buildings. The structures date from 1810 to 1845.
Merithew, a Maine native, was an affluent master mariner who went into shipbuilding and trade after retiring from captaining vessels. His shipyard was known as “Merithew Yard.”
“He was, among other things, a coastal ship captain,” museum interpreter Barbara Perry explained. “Then, he established a very successful shipyard in Searsport and became extremely wealthy and influential.”
Merithew was an imposing figure known to arrive in formal attire every day at the yard. The captain later founded and served as the president of Searsport Bank, where he worked until his death in 1862.
Inside the Captain’s house museum-goers can learn about the Penobscot Bay region’s different industries, including brick, granite and lime. Upstairs, a variety of art can be found, including an 1811 painting of the HMS Sheldrake by maritime artist Robert Salmon.
“People who come to the museum should hope to find artifacts of Penobscot Bay history and beyond,” museum store manager Sabrina Kettell said. “We are really big on preserving this area’s history and we hope that people will see that.”
Also upstairs in the Merithew house one can find scrimshaw, a rare form of artistry. Scrimshaw is the carving or engraving of ivory, bone or other parts of marine animals. Many of the pieces were created by mariners aboard whaling ships and other vessels.
“The sailors would have spent some time aboard the ships and there was a lot of down time, so this is one of the things they did,” Kettell said.
Mindful of children, and seeking to interest and fire their imaginations, the museum boasts a wide array of interactive activities.
Inside the Savage Education Center, called the “Peapod,” children can design their own clothespin doll or visit the general store, where they may “shop” for items such as canned mackerel or fresh herring. They can discover what it would be like to eat and cook in a ship’s galley or simply relax and read a book with an oversized stuffed bear.
At the Marine Science Lab, children can summon their inner poet and compose a short haiku about a lighthouse on the blackboard.
“We have some cute things for kids and we try to put it through all the buildings,” Kettell said.
Furthermore, the site includes several “boat barns.” In one collection is famed author E.B. White’s Brutal Beast, built by yacht designer Starling Burgess.
“We have almost every small craft of boat you can think of,” Kettell said. “We have rowboats and canoes and dories and peapods and lobster boats.”
Whether it is an interest in boats, shipbuilding or the Penobscot Bay region, the Penobscot Marine Museum certainly has many exhibits and collections to investigate.
Penobscot Marine Museum
Where: 5 Church St., Searsport
Hours: Memorial Day-late October, Monday-Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sundays: noon-5 p.m.
How much: $12 per adult, $10 per senior, $8 per child. Admission is free to Searsport residents, museum members and children under 6.
Contact: 548-2529, www.penobscotmarinemuseum.org.