By D. Allan Kerr
Please excuse me while I take a moment to brag about my adopted hometown.
• Back in March, with the 56th anniversary of the loss of the Navy submarine USS Thresher approaching, Town Manager Kendra Amaral announced the Thresher Memorial Fund had dipped to a negative balance. This privately-funded account was created to install and then maintain the 129-foot flagpole now standing in Memorial Circle, as well as a small commemorative park located nearby.
The cost of purchasing and repairing the 20-by-38-foot flags flying from the pole runs about $2,000 a year, Amaral said. The pole’s height represents each of the 129 men who perished aboard the Thresher, built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, in the worst submarine disaster the world has ever known.
Once word got out the fund was depleted, the local community – and beyond – responded in a big way. By year’s end, businesses and citizens had filled the coffers with nearly $12,400. This includes the first installment of a remarkable five-year, $2,000-a-year pledge from Northeast Credit Union, which originally started at the shipyard prior to World War II.
So it’s safe to say the Thresher flag will continue to fly in Kittery for a while.
• During the entire month of June, members of the Maine Army National Guard’s 136th Engineering Company returned to Wood Island for the second consecutive summer to assist in a $4.5 million restoration project there. The non-profit Wood Island Life Saving Station Association estimates the guard has devoted more than $1 million in free labor and the use of equipment over the past two years in renovating the former station.
Now all exterior work has been completed and electricity is in place at the former Portsmouth Harbor site of the old U.S. Life Saving Service. There is still much work to be done before the facility can be reopened as a maritime museum, but the station’s transformation after decades of total neglect is quite stunning – something I like to call the Wood Island Miracle.
• Toward the end of this same month, on the Saturday prior to the Fourth of July, Kittery hosted what is believed to be its first town-wide Independence Day celebration in a century. The ceremony was highlighted by an impassioned reading of the Declaration of Independence by Kittery’s own Gen. William Whipple, the only native Mainer to sign the famous document in 1776.
Marsha Gmyrek of Portsmouth’s Moffatt-Ladd House introduced “Whipple,” who was born and raised in Kittery before becoming a merchant sea captain, Revolutionary War general, and member of the Second Continental Congress.
The Piscataqua Rangers Junior Fife and Drum Corps, Portsmouth Shipyard color guard, and Kittery Historical & Naval Museum also participated in what will hopefully become an annual event. Daughters of the American Revolution were on hand as well, and Colonial-era living historians from Capt. Henry Dearborn’s Company fired a musket volley in salute.
• On 5 November, Kittery residents voted nearly 3-to-1 to finally fund the long-discussed renovation and expansion of our historic Rice Public Library. This $5 million bond referendum once and for all moved forward a long-running debate over the library’s future.
While some residents wanted to build a brand-new, 21st-century facility, others were unable to let go of the original structure considered by many to be the town’s architectural crown jewel.
The building first opened in 1888, with funding bequeathed from the will of a wealthy Portsmouth spinster whose beloved sea captain father was born in Kittery.
Most citizens at least agree the current system of operating the library out of two overcrowded buildings on opposite sides of the street is no longer feasible. The proposed design of the expanded building is still a topic of healthy debate, but now at last a path to the future has been determined.
• Also in November, the girls soccer team from Traip Academy, our local high school, traveled to Falmouth to beat Fort Kent for their first state championship in 18 years. The victory punctuated a 16-2 season, including an amazing playoff run in which the Rangers did not give up a single goal.
It truly was an epic season for these young athletes, but the response from their community was nearly as remarkable. They returned home as local celebrities, with a police escort and local business signs posting congratulatory messages. When the Traip Athletic Boosters announced they were trying to raise $2,500 to purchase champion jackets for the team, folks once again stepped up in a big way.
With donations raised from local residents and businesses, the Rangers were able to obtain their new jackets in time to debut them in the town’s annual Christmas parade.
No doubt there were other milestone events in town I’m failing to mention, and I’m not including new restaurants and stores which opened their doors here this year. But these are the moments which resonated most with me.
I like to call Kittery “Maine’s First Town” because it was the first in the state to incorporate (way back in 1647) and it is also the gateway to those visiting the state via Interstate 95 from the south. It is truly a pioneering town with a colorful history, but it boasts an innovative spirit as well.
Hopefully you had reason this year to feel your town is just as cool.
D. Allan Kerr is a former Rice Public Library trustee and Thresher Memorial Project Group member.
(Dec. 27, 2019)
He can also be found on www.seacoastonline.com