Old Fort Western

Kendall Holmes
Old Fort Western in Augusta, Maine

Parts of this story: History ~~ Photos~~ The Big Woods ~~ The House ~~ Getting There

It has been a British fort, a trading post, a prominent private house and a cheap tenement for mill workers.

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Fort Western, Maine, viewed from its south end during 2000 Fourth of July festivities.
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And since 1922, it has been a museum offering its visitors a fascinating glimpse into New England's distant past -- back to a day when the Maine woods were big, when Indian attacks were a constant threat and when the United States didn't yet exist.

Welcome to Fort Western in Augusta, Maine.

Built in 1754, the sturdy 100 by 32 foot building is America's oldest surviving wooden fort -- and, as such, a National Historic Landmark

Fort Western served the first two decades of its life as an edge-of-the-wilderness outpost for British soldiers and for many years after that as a trading post and home to one of the first European families to settle central Maine.

Later, during the 19th century, the place devolved into a tenement house. But with walls sheathed with 12-inch-thick timbers, even decades of neglect couldn't destroy the place.

In 1922, a local newspaper publisher and his son rescued the fort from its decay. They bought the place, financed its restoration, and then donated it to the city of Augusta, which has maintained it ever since as a museum.

Ongoing restoration work in the many years since then has graced today's visitors with a revealing glimpse into life in the late 1700s on the Maine frontier.

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Some History

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Dressed in the civilian clothes that militia members often wore in the 18th century, 14-year-old Todd Nelson lights a wick so that Michael Nelson can fire one of the cannons as part of this year's Fourth of July celebration at Fort Western. The cannons are located in two reproduction blockhouses, built in 1922 as part of the Fort's restoration. (Click on pictures for larger views)

History tells us that the Fort was built by the Kennebec Proprietors, a Boston-based land company seeking to settle the lands along central Maine's Kennebec River that had been granted to the Pilgrims more than a century earlier.

One of the Kennebec Proprietors, Captain James Howard, occupied the fort from its construction with a provincial military unit made up of his sons and 16 other men.

They used the fort as a staging area to supply other forts further into the Maine woods. Troop members spent most of their time in routine duty, including boat repair, cooking, baking, and brewing, in addition to helping with re-supply.

By the mid 1760s, the fort's military duties wound down as England established its local dominance over the French and the Native Americans.

So Howard bought the building and, with his sons, remodeled it into a house and trading post.

Today the fort is restored to its late 18th century use by the Howards as a private home and trading post, based on diaries by family members and the 1799 probate records of one of his sons.

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The Big Woods

Imagine finding a pine tree big enough to yield a 70-foot beam that, once square up, measured 12 by 12 inches. And now imagine putting the beam to work as a sheathing board -- just one of hundreds of 12-inch-thick timbers that were used to cover an equally sturdy post-and-beam frame.

A plain door -- surrounded by wide, unpainted boards, in the center of the building, which served as a trading post and store.

(Click on pictures for larger views)

That's how the fort was built -- and it's just one of the architectural details that old house lovers will appreciate.

Architectural detailing throughout the house is plain -- as you might expect from a home on the frontier in a converted military barracks.

But that architecture is rich for those who love wood in its simpler forms. On many walls throughout the house, plain pine boards with simple beaded edges serve as a wall covering. Many of the boards are three feet or more in width. They still reveal the undulations of the carpenters who planed them by hand two centuries or more ago.

Clearly, big trees were abundant in 1754 when the fort was constructed.

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Housing Details

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The main dining room in the north end of the 100-by-32-foot house, restored to its late 18th century appearance. (Click on pictures for larger views)

As the fort made its transition from military barracks to private home, James Howard and his sons remodeled the north section of the main house, making eight finished rooms -- four downstairs and four on the second floor -- out of the old barracks area.

A son, William Howard, was the first to take up residence, moving in with his wife, Martha, about 1770. With him came his brother, John Howard. Like William, John had been a member of his father's garrison.

Brother Samuel Howard joined William as a main house resident in 1774. Together they formed the firm of S&W Howard. William Howard stayed at the Fort and ran the store. Samuel sailed one of the family sloops between the Kennebec and Boston.

In 1785, the brothers' aunt Margaret and her daughter, Betsy Howard, also took up residence at the Fort, joining what was a steady stream of extended family members - farm workers, housekeepers, Augusta' s first minister, and others - who stayed with and would have been considered part of William's household. Even James Howard -- the man who had built the place -- eventually returned to live at the Fort, remodeling the south end of the main house.

Today, the house exhibit is furnished based on Samuel Howard's 1799 probate inventory and includes some of the family's original furniture.

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1) The big cooking fireplace in the Fort's main kitchen must have been a popular spot within the sprawling home: Maine's winters are long and cold -- and in the 1700s (as today) the building had no central heat ... 2) Bits of leather serve as washers to keep screws tightly in place ... 3) A spinning wheel in the kitchen. (Click on pictures for larger views)



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4) The stairwell to the bedrooms in the main living quarters, right, shows that simple and functional also can be striking and elegant ... 5) A room in the south end of the house ... 6) Ancient 15 over 10 windows overlook the the palisade fencing.


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Ways and Means

Old Fort Western is located on the east bank of the Kennebec River in Augusta, about a mile from Maine's state capitol complex. The museum is open daily from the fourth of July through Labor Day; weekday hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and weekends, 1 to 4 p.m. A nominal admission fee is charged.Give yourself an hour or two to tour the fort.

While the fort itself is not a destination attraction, there's plenty else for old-house aficionados in the vicinity: Augusta offers many fine examples of Federal and Victorian architecture, as well as the 19th century state capitol building. Just south of the city, Hallowell's well-kept downtown dates to the early 19th century and offers plenty of antique shops, plus fine views of the Kennebec. Hallowell's residential neighborhoods date to the late 18th century and are remarkably well preserved.

Finally, about 10 miles south of Augusta, the small city of Gardiner boasts scores of 18th and 19th century homes of a variety of architectural styles and periods -- again within a streetscape little changed from when the homes were built.

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About the Author
By Kendall Holmes, The Old House Web

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