SOUTH BERWICK, Maine (NEWS CENTER) — Should you believe everything you were taught from your history books?
When it comes to the state of Maine, the folks at the Counting House Museum in South Berwick say probably not.
A new exhibit just opening there is teaching a whole new chapter on the history of southern Maine and New Hampshire.
The exhibit is titled "Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories from the Piscataqua." Hundreds of relics – culled from farms, riverbeds, and tracts of land – are on display, telling the tales of what was going on in the Salmon Falls area during the 1600s. The area encompasses a large region including the Berwicks and across the Piscataqua River into Rollinsford.
And, as anyone walking through the exhibit soon learns, Maine was a very different world than Massachusetts, where villages of Puritans opposing the British crown sprouted up. Contrary to what many of us were taught, Maine did not embrace that culture.
The colorful, light-filled lower rooms of the Counting House will be home to the exhibit for two years — that's how long it took to assemble the creative and educational exhibit. It tells the rich story of the region, beginning with its first inhabitants, the Wabanaki Indians.
The first display features a detailed map of Wabanaki land, complete with cornfields, timber cutting, and fishing areas, as well as audio of a Wabanaki speaker sharing a traditional story, translated by Penobscot Carol Dana.
"We sort of get this sense of this wild wilderness," explained historian Tad Baker as we begin our walk through the exhibit. "We don't stop to think that Native Americans controlled the landscape and farmed and harvested and cut down trees."
Europeans arrived in the 1600s and contributed to a quickly diversified area of ambitious merchants, tenacious farmers, disenfranchised Quakers, freed African slaves, Scottish prisoners or war and Native Americans. Things changed dramatically, curator Nina Maurer said, when the French attacked the British loyalists in the Salmon Falls Raid of 1690. The entire town was decimated.
"There were 80 to 100 people who were either captured or killed here," Maurer said. "The accounts vary between the French and the English somewhat."
Maurer calls it a pivotal time in Maine's history; an independent colony still loyal to the English crown, unlike neighboring states.
"This is the other New England," she said. "This is the New England settled by adventurers, fishermen, timber merchants, people who were trying to create prosperity."
The exhibit focuses on a century of unrest during which Salmon Falls residents relied on their own endurance and their stubbornness that helped them survive uncertain times. In the center is an interactive display that offers a peek at villages and towns "then" and "now," helping to give a better understanding of the changes to the region from 400 years ago to present day.
Baker, who was one of the key archeologists on digs in the area, has passion for the 17th century.
"You can find things in the ground to tell stories in history that you just can't find any other way," he said.
Baker uncovered some of the very relics on display at the Counting House exhibit, buried in and around the Salmon Falls and Piscataqua River. In fact , he uncovered fragments of beer mugs from a tavern dig site about a mile from the Counting House.
"They had real lives, they enjoyed a companionable drink," Baker shared, smiling broadly. "The 17th-century beer would be an acquired taste I think. First off, they didn't have hops much and they didn't always have barley, so the beer that we made for the opening actually was from a colonial recipe and it's nothing but spruce tips, and molasses and water."
For Baker and Maurer, the exhibit is about far more than the physical pieces of history. It's about uncovering "who" the people were, and how their diverse community thrived.
"For people who live in this region, we want them to have some sense of how those events and those people from that century affect us today."
It took two years to create the Forgotten Frontier: Untold Stories of the Piscataqua exhibit at the Counting House Museum in South Berwick. It will be open for two years, through October 2018. Admission is free.
The exhibit opens Saturday, June 3, from noon to 4 p.m., with special presentations of 17th-century hand skills and colonial trades.
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