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Maine Historical Society, Wadsworth-Longfellow House

Maine Historical Society, Wadsworth-Longfellow House
Jul 05, 2017 (Edited Jul 05, 2017)

The Wadsworth-Longfellow House, the boyhood home of famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, stands on Congress Street, directly in front of another brick building, the Maine Historical Society Library. Next door is an exhibit hall, lecture hall, and store for the Maine Historical Society (known sometimes as the Center for Maine History). This block has many Irish-American connections, which we will explore.

General Peleg Wadsworth (1748-1829) built the Longfellow House in 1785-1786, the first brick residence in Portland. Here Peleg’s grandson, Henry W. Longfellow (1807-1882), resided with his parents and siblings until the age of 14 when he entered Bowdoin College.

In 1850, Zilpha Wadsworth Longfellow, mother of the poet, and a seventy-year old widow with real estate valued at $15, 400, resided at the home (then 283 Congress) with her sons Stephen and Alexander, civil engineers, daughter Anne Pierce, sister Lucia Wadsworth, and grandson Henry W. Longfellow. Two maids attended to this household, thirty-six year old Maine native Sarah Hasty, and an Irish immigrant, fifteen-year old Ann Cummings. Ann is one of the first known Irish girls who would serve as a servant for the Longfellows throughout the 19th Century. In 1860, Ann was a domestic servant for Mrs. Mary Ann Gerrish, widow of Joseph M. She could possibly be the Annie Cummings who was married at St. Dominic’s Church May 6, 1861 to Patrick Callan.

By the late 1870s Nancy Erskine, a Nova Scotian, was a servant at the Longfellow House, when only Anne Longfellow Pierce resided there. In 1900, Irish immigrant Margaret McDonough, born in Galway in 1869 and arriving here in 1889, was a servant, along with Mainer Mary E. Colleran. Margaret could be the Margaret McDonough married in 1906 to Frederick J. Lally of Boston. It is an unfortunate fact of research that the lives of most Irish servants are unrecorded and sometimes exhaustive and often futile research would have to be undertaken to trace these people.

When Mrs. Annie Pierce died in 1901 at the age of 90, she left the Longfellow House and land to the Maine Historical Society. Between 1903-1907, the present Maine Historical Society library was constructed. The poet’s nephew Alexander W. Longfellow designed it. In 1980, the edifice was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has served generations of genealogists and historians and has many collections relating to Irish and Irish-American history and genealogy.

In 1995, William David Barry and Matthew J. Barker started an Irish-American vertical file on the Irish in Maine, which has continued to grow over the years. It can be found at the library, along with files relating to the history of other ethnic groups in Maine. In 1999, the MHS hosted an Irish-American History Roundtable, which was well received. Since then the society has hosted similar gatherings on the history of African-Americans, Jews, and Chinese in Maine. Future roundtables for other ethnic groups are planned.

Among the thousands of manuscript collections in the library is the work of William H. Grady (Collection 1960), who compiled an extensive history and genealogy of the Irish of Bangor, Maine, during the 1940s. Bangor once boasted of a sizable Irish population, which at times rivaled that of Portland.

When Joseph A. McGowan (1859-1929), an accountant and member of a prominent Irish Catholic family of Portland, removed to Indianapolis, Indiana about 1903, he called on the poet James Whitcomb Riley. When Riley died in July 1916, McGowan reported that Riley had welcomed him with open arms at the time of the visit, declaring that he “welcomed any man from Portland,” birthplace of Longfellow, who first inspired Riley to be a poet.

Arthur Charles Jackson founded the International Longfellow Society in Portland in the early 1900s and eventually conferred honorary presidency of the society on a multitude of famous people, from presidents and governors to Queen Marie of Romania. In 1923, William Cardinal O’Connell, Archbishop of Boston, received the honor. He was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Portland from 1901-1906. O’Connell wrote, “To all who love beautiful sentiments admirably expressed, the works of Longfellow are dear; but they are especially dear to the hearts of Catholics.” He went on to state that Longfellow, “with true religious insight, placed before the reading public the fervor of the Church’s spirit and the lofty idealism of its mission” at a time when Catholics were greatly discriminated against in this country. O’Connell was of course referring to “Evangeline” and “The Legend Beautiful,” among others. (For a great account of the life of the eccentric Arthur C. Jackson, see “Henry & Me,” William David Barry, Down East, April 1990).

In 1896, the Portland Cadets, Co. B, 1st Regiment, had an armory at 487 ½ Congress Street. In 1897, the Maine Fife & Bugle Corps had rooms here. In 1898-99, the Catholic Literary and Debating Society occupied the space. It was also listed as headquarters of the Catholic Young Men’s Literary Association, with Percy Horton as president and Michael J. Cullinan as recording secretary. During this time, dentist Edward B. Lockwood also had his office here. By the spring of 1900, 487 ½ Congress had been completely taken over by Morton’s Café, operated by the Morton Bon-Bon Company with offices next door at 489 Congress Street. There is some confusion as to what or where 487 ½ Congress was. It does not appear on Sanborn insurance maps of 1886, 1896, or 1909. It apparently was a part of the block 489-497 Congress Street, which was completely altered two decades ago.

RELATED SITES: Longfellow Birthplace (Fore Street), Hibernian Hall (Maine Historical Society)

Author Matt Barker
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