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Mary Ruoff

Freelance writer Mary Ruoff of Belfast wrote the "Way Down East" chapter of Fodor's "Maine Coast" travel guide and has contributed Maine content to other Fodor's guides.

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Posted: June 27, 2017

Knox Museum opens for the season with a new focus

The replicated estate will now have exhibits about the general’s role in American history

Written by: Mary Ruoff
The Knox Museum, just off Route 1 in Thomaston, is a replication of the estate originally built a mile away by the general. Photo courtesy of Ben Magro

The Knox Museum, just off Route 1 in Thomaston, is a replication of the estate originally built a mile away by the general. Photo courtesy of Ben Magro

George Washington didn’t sleep at Thomaston’s Knox Museum (aka Montpelier), but visitors can see the elegant mahogany bed of the first president’s dear friend Gen. Henry Knox, who served as Washington’s chief of artillery during the Revolutionary War and in his cabinet as the country’s first secretary of war.

Both Maine’s Fort Knox, across from Bucksport, and Fort Knox in Kentucky are named for him.

Truth be told, Knox slept in the bed but not in this grand home, a replication of his Montpelier estate, inspired by those of his close friends: Washington’s Mount Vernon as well as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.

Crowned with a clerestory or “fake” fourth story that passers-by often mistake for a widow’s walk, the three-story mansion sits on high ground at the edge of Thomaston, angled at Route 1 traffic traveling north after passing through downtown. But the original Montpelier, built in 1794, was about a mile away in the heart of town, overlooking the St. George River as it widens into an estuary.

Falling into disrepair and vacant after it was sold in 1856, Montpelier was torn down in 1871 to make way for the railroad. Locals came to salvage souvenirs, from balustrades to snatches of wallpaper, appropriating bits and pieces of what had been Maine’s grandest dwelling. Through a preservation effort, Montpelier was replicated at its current site in 1931.

But don’t come simply for the furnishings, though there are plenty of great pieces, and the architecture, masterful as it is. Starting with this summer, the institution is transitioning from a “house museum” to one with exhibits about Knox and his role in “very revolutionary” times. Long-term plans for the 10-acre grounds include Knox-era gardens and landscaping and a visitor’s center styled after a meeting house that Knox helped construct.

There will still be guided tours that spotlight the general and his home, but rooms are no longer set up to look as they did back in the day, though household items and memorabilia are displayed. Now rooms are themed around an aspect of the general’s life, career, home or family. Rather than being ushered out after a tour, visitors can linger, going back to look more closely at exhibits and read newly installed display panels with texts, photos and other images. One highlights Knox’s role in creating the exclusive patriotic organization Society of the Cincinnati.

Photo by Mary Ruoff Clerestory windows are reflected in sunlight on the soaring stairwell wall.

Photo by Mary Ruoff
Clerestory windows are reflected in sunlight on the soaring stairwell wall.

Surely some folks will simply want to linger in the home’s wonderful interiors. An elegant “flying” staircase anchors a lengthwise main floor hall lit by the clerestory, which brightens most of the home’s rooms. Eyes tend to focus up at the balconies and the windowed walls jutting above the roofline, but don’t miss the paintings of the original Montpelier or the leather fire buckets under the twin stairs. A large oval entry room, designed for entertaining, opens to a porch running the length of the home. Curved doors lead to the drawing and dining rooms on either side.

At the first Montpelier, cooking was done on the first floor, below the family’s living space – one of several architectural features that made what was built as a summer home (though soon occupied by the family full time) more typical of Southern climes. The museum gift shop, known for its great selection of historic books, has a huge kitchen hearth along one wall. A carriage is displayed in another ground-level room.

Some visitors are disappointed to learn that the impressive structure isn’t the 19-room original, but the fascinating story of how the second Montpelier came to be is a reason to visit and now part of history itself. The Thomaston Room showcases the preservation effort led by local resident Mary Jane Watts and fellow members of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Townsfolk donated Montpelier items, both salvaged and bought at auction. The project drew national support, and the Portland-born Philadelphia publisher of Ladies’ Home Journal and the Saturday Evening Post donated $75,000 to the effort.

A sideboard at the Knox Museum displays matching knife boxes shaped like urns and a pair of silverware holders.

A sideboard at the Knox Museum displays matching knife boxes shaped like urns and a pair of silverware holders.

While the museum doesn’t have high-tech interactive exhibits, a flat screen TV shows Revolutionary War battle reenactments in the library, now the War Room. Here, visitors learn about Knox’s establishment of the U.S. Navy, his plans for what became the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and the quelling of rebellions that threatened the young nation. Women and children in Knox’s life are spotlighted in the adjoining drawing room, where reproduction pale blue and goldish tan wallpaper with a classical design is sprinkled with mica so it glitters in the light. A framed piece of the original blends right in. Knox and his wife, the former Lucy Flucker, had 13 children, but only three lived to adulthood. An obituary and a letter written to Washington about the death of his 9-month-old godson leaves no doubt that repeatedly losing children doesn’t lessen searing grief.

The first room on the tour, the small Boston Room, probably Knox’s office for meeting business associates, extoll his rise from bookseller in his hometown to a leading role in the patriot cause. Knox, who was at the Boston Massacre and impressed Washington with a rampart he designed, earned fame early in the war for transporting 60 tons of cannon captured from Fort Ticonderoga in New York to Boston. The threatening artillery presence from Dorchester Heights was enough to prompt the British and loyalist supporters to flee, including his wife’s wealthy parents (she never saw them again), ending an 11-month siege and liberating Massachusetts, the first colony to throw off colonial rule.

Upstairs, the general’s bedroom remains as a period room. The canopy bed is a stunner, with ribbon-carved head- and foot-boards; the original delicately painted cornice, unique even for 1796, and new creamy white bedding and bedhanging made by the nation’s leading bed historian. Another bedroom showcases outstanding original family furnishings that were moved to make way for the new exhibits. Among the many impressive antiques are a glass-fronted bookcase loaded with family lore and two urn-shaped knife boxes atop one of the general’s sideboards. A smaller bedroom is used for changing exhibits. “From Molly Pitcher to The Global War on Terror” features personal stories of Maine women who have served in military wars, from the Revolution to the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.

Montpelier's Oval Room was designed for entertaining in grand style; the panels are part of a traveling exhibit about George Washington that will be on display through mid-August. Photos by Mary Ruoff

Montpelier’s Oval Room was designed for entertaining in grand style; the panels are part of a traveling exhibit about George Washington that will be on display through mid-August. Photos by Mary Ruoff

Through mid-August, traveling exhibit “The Many Faces of George Washington,” created partly by Mount Vernon, will be displayed on the main floor. Mount Vernon’s senior vice president of historic preservation and collections, Carol Borchert Cadou, will talk at Rockland’s Strand Theatre at 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 10. The Virginia historic site’s George Washington impersonator will be on hand. The next morning, Aug. 11, he’ll be at Montpelier from 9-11 a.m. for “Hoecakes with George Washington.” Breakfast will be served at this family event ($5, free under age 5).

Retired in Thomaston after his years of service, Knox was a gentleman farmer and much more, engaging in many businesses that were making the Maine frontier a growing and prosperous place: quarrying, shipping, timbering, land speculation, brick-making. But he was heavily in debt when he died unexpectedly at age 56, and his wife and children were unable to carry on his enterprises successfully. His wife, a close friend of Martha Washington but seen as haughty by townsfolk, became reclusive. The estate was built on land she had inherited, part of a massive tract owned by her maternal grandfather Samuel Waldo, for whom Waldo County is named.

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