Preserving pieces of history

By Wayne E. Rivet
Staff Writer

EAST BALDWIN — Nearly 29 years ago, Gregg and Norma Haines bought a small home that sat to the far left of their Norton Place house to save a piece of history.

When invited to the home once owned by town doctor, James Norton, Gregg was captivated by hand-painted murals lining a “good morning” stairway (also called a bride and groom staircase, “why they would be in different rooms, I don’t know,” Gregg said), as well as decorating a master and smaller bedroom on the second floor.

A history buff, Gregg noticed the initials, “JDP” prominently displayed in the mural at the top of the stairway. He learned the early American scenery had been painted by Jonathan D. Poor, the nephew of renown artist, Rufus Porter.

“We believe it was the last house he did,” Gregg said. Poor died in 1845 at the age of 37. “Jonathan D. Poor worked as an apprentice to Rufus Porter, and at some point went out on his own. His murals are more whimsical, such as you find a manure pile outside the barn and wash on the line, things Rufus Porter wouldn’t put in. What is remarkable is that some of the colors are as bright as they day they were painted.”

The colorful murals include farm and port scenes. While both painters included various “signatures” in their work — “typical of both Rufus Porter and Jonathan D. Poor, you will find this fella with gun (in this case shooting at a raptor) or him holding a telescope, and this fella with top hat sailing,” Gregg said as he pointed out these characteristics in the master bedroom murals — Poor extensively used yellow and red birds in his work.

Knowing the owners, whose permanent residence was in California, were aging, Gregg approached them about possibly buying the Norton homestead, at some point.

“I asked for first refusal,” he said.

In 1982, the Haines bought the home. Gregg admits he felt a certain “obligation” to protect and preserve the historic murals.

Now, nearly 29 years later, the Haines will turn over that stewardship to the Rufus Porter Museum of Bridgton. At age 71, Gregg and Norma had a new home built, “just up the road.” The decided to sell the Norton homestead, but Gregg remained concerned about the murals’ future. His mind was put at ease last week.

Reaching an agreement with Rufus Porter Museum, Inc. of Bridgton, the Haines consented to allow the walls containing Jonathan D. Poor murals and the “good morning” staircase to be removed under the direction of David Ottinger of Arlington, Mass. from the East Baldwin home to become part of a permanent exhibit in Bridgton.

The Haines’ real estate agent, Linda Griffin, received a phone call from museum officials, who proposed an interesting offer. Authors Linda Lefko and Jane Radcliffe, who penned “Folk Art Murals of the Rufus Porter School: New England Landscapes 1825-1845” which will be released in May, tipped museum officials that the Norton home was for sale. The Deed of Gift was signed on April 2. Once the murals and staircase are removed, new walls and windows will be installed. “Extracting” the murals will likely take three weeks, Gregg estimated. An adhesive will be applied to the backside of the plaster/wooden lathe canvases to insure the murals stay intact. They will then be crated and stored at a Bridgton location until the new exhibit barn is constructed.

Gregg and Norma Haines feel a great sense of relief.

“I fell in love with the walls. With the talk of the trains coming through here in the future (railroad tracks are nearby), it added a little more fuel to my concern to get these someplace where they could be protected,” said Gregg who had moved from his other home into the Norton homestead when the couple’s antique business “took over our home.” “It’s going to be fun watching them take the walls apart.”

On market since last fall, the Haines worried that if the property sold, there was no guarantee the historic murals would be protected.

“Most people may see this just as an old, painted house with old painted walls. So what. I’ve been a history buff all my life. To me, they are priceless. It’s been a great house. We feel very pleased that this is going to happen,” said Gregg who is a member of the local historical society. “When our realtor called and said we might not like the offer — they’d (the museum) like for you to donate the walls. At first, I gave a negative reply, but the more I thought about it, this may be the solution I am looking for, as long as we could agree upon how to address fixing the house. It’s really working out for the best.”

Nelle Ely, who is president of the Rufus Porter Musem, Inc. Board of Directors, agrees.

“I hadn’t seen the murals before. When I did, I was overwhelmed, not only because the condition they were in, but because of the detail, such as street signs and clothing on a line,” she said. “By creating this exhibit, it is an opportunity to put western Maine and Bridgton on the map as a place to see early American folk paintings.”

The exhibit could include a video capturing the removal of the walls from the East Baldwin home to the creation of the permanent exhibit in Bridgton, thanks to taping equipment made available by Lake Region Television.

The next major step is construction of the new 30-by-60 square foot museum barn. Ely said a local business has donated some materials and will sell other items at cost to assist the effort. Meanwhile, the museum is in line for a $500,000 grant, but the group must raise matching funds. Ely estimates that to complete the barn will carry a price tag of about $200,000.

An artist herself, Ely is totally committed to seeing the project come to fruition.

“I am totally dedicated to bring this great opportunity to Bridgton,” she said. “I’ve put other things aside to make this project happen.”

Anyone interested in donating to this important project may contact the co-presidents, Nelle Ely at nelleely@roadrunner.com or Julie Lindberg at j.k.lindberg@att.net, or the museum at 647-2828. Donations may be accepted on the website, www.rufusportermuseum.org.

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