OTISFIELD — A lifelong friendship that developed almost 50 years ago may be the link the town needs to raise $60,000 to restore the historic Town House.
Henry Hamilton, president of the Otisfield Historical Society, said he received word from his friend Mian Ershad Zaheen, an international banker from London, that he will offer a $10,000 matching gift to the society to help pay for site work and a new foundation for the 1905 Town House.
“I figured maybe a few hundred dollars,” Hamilton said. “He calls me up and offers $10,000.”
The wood-frame building on Bell Hill Road near the intersection of Route 121 was deeded to the Otisfield Historical Society by voters in 2009 after it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2005. Society members have been raising funds for the past few years to renovate the building for use, in part, as a repository for the town’s archives.
The building, which has in its original oak chairs and voting booths, is in wetlands so the structure and the surrounding ground need to be raised to preserve it.
The society has raised about $25,000 for the project.
Hamilton met Zaheen in the mid-1960s when Hamilton, then 21, was stationed in Pershawar, Pakistan, with the United States Air Force.
“He wanted to improve his English,” Hamilton said of Zaheen, then 16, who would become his guide, traveling companion and lifelong friend.
Zaheen returned to the United States with Hamilton and lived in a small cabin in the back of Hamilton’s grandmother’s house in Otisfield in the 1960s, working in the carding room of Robinson Woolen Mill in Oxford before they both enrolled in the University of Maine.
Zaheen became a track star and went on to graduate from Harvard University. Now a director of one of Europe’s major commercial banks, Zaheen lives with his family in London. Hamilton and Zaheen have continued to visit each other over the decades.
“We’ve just been brothers,” Hamilton said. Zaheen was Hamilton’s best man at his wedding, and last year he gave the couple a three-week tour of Scottish castles as an anniversary gift.
Now, Zaheen is now offering a gift to the town to preserve its old government building.
Hamilton explained that if the Town House was moved from the wetlands it would lose its National Register status.
The society’s contractor, Ken Bartow, of Otisfield came up with what Hamilton called “an astonishing suggestion,” to simply raise building and land 54 inches.
The plan was presented to staff at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission last spring and approved. Officials there said they believe this was a “first” for an idea to restore the building and keep it on the National Register.
The building replaced an earlier town house at the same site and was used for town meetings, selectmen’s meetings and a polling place. It was also used as a social and meeting hall through the 1920s, but in 1985 town meetings were moved to the municipal building on Route 121. Voting continued at the Town Hall until 2002 when the building was closed for public use.
Donations may be sent to the Otisfield Historical Society, c/o Henry Hamilton, 877 State Route 121, Otisfield, ME, 04270.