MONMOUTH — A controversial community project has grown into recognition and national competition for Monmouth Academy students.

A history lesson from teacher Jocelyn Gray turned into a community service project this past October, prompting a cleanup day at Monmouth Center Cemetery, which drew ire from the Cemetery Association.

Sun Journal articles followed the students from a day of cleanup and restoration of Seth Martin’s fallen monument to the fallout and subsequent feud with the association.

Those articles, Gray said, caught the attention of the Margaret Chase Smith Library. According to Gray, the director contacted her, invited her students to tour the museum and presented them with about $200 toward their cemetery project.

Gray credited the articles for producing donations from others, both community members and complete strangers.

Since their work at the cemetery had been halted, Gray said donated money was given to the descendants of the gravestones so the restoration could continue.

Seth Martin’s descendants showed their appreciation by showing the students items that belonged to Martin, including his wife’s engagement ring and a blanket perfectly preserved since Martin’s passing in 1897.

Gray also credited coverage of her students’ work for winning the WCSH Schools that Shine Award that came with a $1,000 grant.

During their visit, museum assistant John Taylor told the group about National History Day and an upcoming competition in Orono.

“We decided to pick different projects that go with a theme — our theme was “rights and responsibilities” sophomore Andie Houston said.

Gray said that was when Houston came up with the idea of starting a History Club, not just for the sake of competition but for things like the cemetery project and preserving history.

“It was a great, wonderful surprise for me to have a student activate that and then to have a group of 10 of them be like, ‘Yeah, let’s do this,” Gray said. She said the work the students have done has been after school on their own time.

With only a couple of months’ notice to prepare, Gray said the newly founded History Club wasted no time as Houston and her partner, sophomore Samantha Grandahl, dove into their project: “Poorhouses in Maine.”

Gray guided students to resources while trying to quickly make sense of the stringent rules for the competition. She also quickly made use of the Schools that Shine grant, as her pending transportation bill would weigh in at $700.

She said Houston and Grandahl’s tri-fold, wooden poorhouse model was diminutive compared to light-up appliance boxes and multimedia displays brought in by other competitors, but substance won out over display.

Houston and Grandahl won first place in the Senior Division Group Exhibit. Houston said that not only was it the pair’s first time competing but it was a first for Monmouth Academy.

The first place win qualifies Houston and Grandahl to compete nationally in Washington, D.C., in June.

With higher stakes, Houston and Grandahl have begun cannibalizing their last project and are working on a more impressive display because there is a limit to the number of words they can use when creating their entry. They plan to narrow their scope to poorhouses in Monmouth.

Primary sources can be used, according to Gray, prompting the students to pore over old Monmouth documents, maps and scrawled handwriting, so foreign to today’s teens.

Houston said they had to have Gray translate much of the 1800s handwriting for them. Houston also had the opportunity to handle materials from the time, saying she was afraid to put on a glove from the 1800s for fear of tearing it.

Houston and Gray pointed out on a map where there was once a “tramp” poorhouse behind Cumston Hall and a poor farm where often the elderly would be expected to earn their keep.

Gray said she sees this as an opportunity to not only bring a piece of Maine history to the national stage, but of Monmouth specifically, to youths from all over the country and U.S. territories.

“We’re actually excited to show people Monmouth because we actually didn’t know we had poorhouses,” Houston said.

Houston and Grandahl said their partnership in the project was complementary, with analytical Houston crunching facts and Grandahl taking on design.

“I think it’s going to be a really good experience,” Grandahl said, remembering the state competition and “seeing all these crazy projects that these kids are making.”

The trip is not funded and the History Club has little time to raise money for the competition as well as to build their project.

A Dine to Donate day has been set up from 4 to 8 p.m.Wednesday at the Winthrop Subway, with a portion of the proceeds going to the girls .

Another fundraiser has been set at local eatery TJ’s Place on Route 202 in Monmouth. Houston and Grandahl’s fathers, Jason Houston and James Grandahl, are both musicians and will play for diners on May 30 and collect a portion of the proceeds.

Gray still takes every opportunity to foster community spirit in her students.

On Saturday, she will take about 30 volunteer students into all of the Monmouth cemeteries to place flags on graves. She said the local vets are growing too few and too advanced in age to complete the task as they used to do.

Gray, whose husband is an Iraq war veteran, said she sees this as her duty, instilling a sense of respect and reverence for the flag.

“It’s amazing — the domino effect — a couple hours in a cemetery, and then it just grew,” she said.

[email protected]

The History Club has started a gofundme page to accept donations online. You can go to to donate to the trip to nationals.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: