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100 Years Ago, Maine Celebrated Its Centennial Amid A Pandemic

Rebecca Conley
Maine Public

Maine's bicentennial celebration has been muted by the coronavirus pandemic. But, 100 years ago this weekend, despite the Spanish flu, the state celebrated its centennial.

Maine Public’s Irwin Gratz spoke with historian Herb Adams on the site of some of the centennial festivities in Portland.

Ed note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Adams: Tens of thousands of people congregated in the city. And one of the centers of the celebration was Deering Oaks Park, here in Portland. There were early Maine movies — wouldn't you like to see what they look like now — shown at the expo. There were battleships brought into the harbor, the USS Tennessee and the USS Utah. The Tennessee had just brought the remains of the Unknown Soldier over from France. Navy subs were tied up, down at the Maine state Pier. There were biplane flights off of Martin's Point. Every single day had a different parade or a different presentation made somewhere.

One of the most popular, bar none, was the Native American, the Indigenous people, the Indian encampment, here in Deering Oaks, and we are standing on the exact spot on the north shore of the pond where that took place. It's heavy with irony on us now. The old and the new, two cultures meeting, two celebrations that meant very different things to very different peoples.

Gratz: One of the ways that contrast was made plain was that the current governor at that time, also was part of the observance here at the Oaks.

Governor Carl Milliken from Island Falls was one of the very progressive Maine governors. He supported voting rights for women, signed the bills. Here he was brought to Portland, and on the second of July, 1920, was put in a canoe, where he — in full regalia, he is wearing top hat and tails and velvet dinner gloves, all of that — and, carried by canoe, across the width of Deering Oaks pond, guided by two Native Americans, in full regalia, with thousands aligning the shores cheering, to this spot where we're standing now, where he was greeted by two lines of Native Americans, Penobscots one side, Passamaquoddy on the other. They fired a cannon for him, hammered the shell from the cannon into an arrow tip, presented him with a ceremonial bow and arrow here, and marched him on a tour through the encampment.

Now the relations between the tribes and state government have always been very fraught, at least in my tenure here. What about at that time?

There were problems with fishing rights, problems with timber-cutting rights, problems with harvesting of seals and things like that, that were traditional rights of the First Peoples, which of course were really of no regard in white law at the time. The state of Maine regarded them as wards of the state. They received X amount of support in terms of food, blankets and things like that. It was never enough, and it was rarely delivered on time. And yet the they were regarded as the the fading population, those to pay respects to as they slowly marched from the scene to being absorbed into white society in ways that will be useful to the society and, "good for them."

In charge of the tribal encampment at the Oaks was Governor William Neptune of the Passamaquoddy tribe.

Governor Neptune was interviewed, very frankly, by the newspapers and spoke very frankly to them to. "Sixty-five years ago, we did not have to make baskets for a living. We hunted, but that time has gone. We fished but that time has gone. The white people have stripped us, from top to bottom." Credit to the paper for printing his words exactly. But they give you plenty to think about 100 years later on, because much of what he brings up has yet to be solved between the first peoples and the rest of us.

1920, they are still in the throes of the Spanish flu. Did that make a difference to what was going on then?

It's very interesting. There's plenty of pictures of the Spanish flu influencing the population of Portland and almost every town in Maine, [people wearing masks and all of that. Very little of that is visible in any pictures of the centennial. What propelled the centennial and makes it so different from our silent bicentennial is that there was a spirit of optimism that drove the centennial in 1920. Progress had brought them thus far. Progress was going to carry them to infinite directions. There's no nay-saying that you can read about.

Maine has postponed most of its official bicentennial celebrations to next year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.