The Second Razing of Montpelier

On December 19, 2017, Scott Thistle of the Portland Press Herald reported the Knox Museum in Thomaston (also known as “Montpelier”) was on the verge of closing.  Thistle reported that a December 15, 2017 letter, written by chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, Peter Ogden, noted Montpelier was facing a “dire” situation.

Thousands of cars drive by the Knox Museum in Thomaston during high tourist season.  It sits majestically overlooking Route 1, at a point in the road that curves slightly to the left heading out of town and toward Rockland.  How many happy motorists realize the house is a replica of the original mansion is unknown.  The original mansion, built by Revolutionary War General and first Secretary of War Henry Knox, was demolished in 1871.

Absent from Thistle’s news story and difficult to find on the museum’s modern website is the fact that the replica of Montpellier was built and furnished with a generous gift of the late Cyrus H.K. Curtis and the work of the General Knox Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).  The Maine DAR website notes “in 1931 the replica, built and furnished by the Maine Daughters – under the leadership of the General Knox Chapter of Thomaston – was dedicated.”

Ogden’s letter, according to Thistle, is quoted as saying “the museum has largely been funded by a finite gift which has now been exhausted.”

I don’t have a copy of the letter and I’m making an assumption that the now-exhausted “finite gift” was the same one mentioned fleetingly on the Knox Museum website as “the generous gift of the late Cyrus H.K. Curtis.”

Who was Cyrus H.K. Curtis?  He was a very wealthy man.  Born in Portland, Maine in 1850, he made his fortune, in part, from magazine publishing.  The “K” in his name stands for Kotzschmar, and he did, indeed, donate the Kotzschmar Organ to the city of Portland.  According to Wikipedia’s sources, he is still considered “one of the richest Americans ever.”

The Knox Museum managed this gift for approximately 86 years before exhausting it.  Without hiring a forensic accountant to review the records, I can’t comment on the museum’s financial management, other than to say history is replete with gift-recipients who blew away an inheritance in a day.

Back in the early 1970’s, one of the cars that approached the Knox Museum in Thomaston was a Plymouth Fury.  I’m not sure what year, make, and model it was.  My father never bought new cars.  But we visited one summer; it was a family day trip.  I saved the brochure, printed by the Maine State Park and Recreation Commission.  They ran the museum until 1999 and then gave the property to the nonprofit after “failing to make the museum’s operations financially viable itself” according to Thistle’s news story.  My brochure says it was “Published Under Appropriation 5410.”

How old was I?  Not more than 10, I think.  I remember the magnificent house and the semi-flying staircase.  The trip home was fraught with some terror, though, thinking how General Knox allegedly died from an infection after a chicken bone lodged in his throat.

Frightened or not, I often thought of Montpelier after our visit and kept the brochure in my envelope of souvenirs.  I consider this visit the beginning of my appreciation for beautiful things and my passion for their preservation.  Why else would I be drawn to flying staircases at the Foss Mansion, the Ruggles House, and the Victoria Mansion had my child’s mind not contemplated the symmetry of Montpelier’s replica?

Scott Thistle’s Portland Press Herald story did not answer all of my questions; I have many.  Newspaper reports written during the construction of the replica would be rich with names of men and women involved in this project.  I’m especially interested in the role the General Knox Chapter of the DAR played in this project.

Women once did interesting things.  It used to be their work.

Sifting through the internet this morning, I once again chant the old George Bailey mantra of “I wish I had a million dollars.”  If I did, I’d give it to the Knox Museum with the proviso that I am allowed regular access to all of their historical records.

Should any of my readers have a million dollars, please contact the Knox Museum pronto and find out how you can be instrumental in preserving this very interesting building.

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