Story posted June 30, 2009
History and tradition play critical roles in the Bowdoin experience and are the essence of the Maine Historical Society, with whom the College has been inextricably linked since its inception in 1822.
The Society's first meetings were held on campus and scheduled to coincide with Bowdoin's commencement ceremonies, and when a growing collection of books, maps and other materials dictated the need for proper quarters, a small room in Bannister Hall was provided.
During its first 100 years of operation, nine of the Society's 10 presidents were associated with the College as graduates, board members or presidents.
President Barry Mills affirmed the bonds between the two institutions and shared many of Bowdoin's connections with aspects of the Civil War on Saturday, June 27, 2009, in Portland at the dedication of the Society's Alida Carroll and John Marshall Brown Library.
"Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin; Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at Gettysburg and Appomattox; John Albion Andrew who, as Governor of Massachusetts, formed Colonel Robert Gould Shaw's famous 54th Massachusetts Regiment of black soldiers; Oliver Otis Howard in battle and as leader of the Freedmen's Bureau. All of these extraordinary people — and many more — were associated with Maine, with Brunswick, and with Bowdoin," said Mills.
"There was something about our state, our community, and our oldest college in those days that produced extraordinary vision and leadership, exceptional courage, and an unwavering spirit — all on behalf of a cause and a struggle played out far from our borders and even more distant from the Maine way of life."
One alumnus who fought for the Union was General John Marshall Brown of the Bowdoin Class of 1860, after whom the Society's library is named.
"A Civil War hero who saw action at many of the most storied and violent confrontations of that terrible conflict, John Marshall Brown was also a prominent figure in Maine politics, in business, and the cultural life of 19th century Maine. Gravely wounded in battle, he carried with him a lifelong loyalty to and concern for veterans, along with a staunch belief in the need and value of preparing young men for battle," said Mills.
"This conviction he shared with fellow Bowdoin graduate and his former professor, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and like Chamberlain, Brown was unwavering in his devotion to Bowdoin. For forty years, from 1867 until his death in 1907, Brown served with distinction as an overseer and trustee of the College during the presidencies of Samuel Harris, Chamberlain, and William DeWitt Hyde. And as Hyde was leading Bowdoin through its first period of profound expansion and change, Brown was at his side serving as vice president, then as president of the Board of Overseers."
It was Brown who first suggested the Society's move to Portland, which occurred in 1881 upon need for additional space and amid a deepening sensitivity that a Society devoted to the history of all of Maine might not want to be so intertwined with a single college.
"The Maine Historical Society serves an invaluable role in preserving our heritage and traditions while promoting the enormous value of history for those everywhere with an interest in Maine and New England," Mills said.
"The importance of this institution and its holdings are obvious and enduring. Here researchers, students, and anyone with an interest in Maine history and heritage can explore the past and discover much about the present. Here, we get a sense not only of the events and ideas that defined a previous era and an earlier culture, but also an appreciation for the context, values, and beliefs that brought change — both good and not so good.
"For years to come, I am confident that this wonderful new facility at the Maine Historical Society will stand, not necessarily to provide answers but to encourage a multitude of questions about Maine and her people and traditions. In doing so, it will ensure that every generation has an opportunity to remember the past and to develop the critical habits of inquiry so necessary for our future."