May 7, 1792: After a proposal to separate the District of Maine from Massachusetts is revived, the first districtwide vote on the issue is held. The “no” side prevails, 2,524-2,074.

Proponents of separation are encouraged – they would have won if not for strong opposition in only six of the 89 towns that provided referendum returns, and the low voter turnout suggests they might do better if more voters participate.

May 7, 1812: Kennebec Valley midwife Martha Moore Ballard (1735-1812), gravely ill, records in her diary that the day is clear, very cold and windy. Her daughter, grandchildren, two friends and a minister stop by to greet her and pray with her.

It is her final diary entry after 27 years of chronicling weather, gardening, local politics, criminal cases, births, deaths, health care, family matters and other goings-on, providing perhaps the most vivid firsthand description ever written about daily life in early post-Colonial New England. She dies a few weeks later at 77.

Excerpt from Martha Ballard’s diary Image courtesy of the Maine State Library via dohistory.org

Born in Oxford, Massachusetts, Ballard married Ephriam Ballard and gave birth to all but one of the couple’s nine children in Massachusetts. She joined her husband in Hallowell in 1777. Her diary covers the years 1785 to 1812.

The diary, excerpts of which are cited in at least two historical works written more than a century ago, flies largely under the cultural radar until 1990, when University of New Hampshire professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s book “A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812” is published. The book wins a Pulitzer Prize.

May 7, 1933: An arsonist sets fire to the Bijou Theater in Ellsworth. By the time the flames are put out, the fire consumes about 130 buildings, including three-quarters of the business district and most of the houses south of Main Street. Many others are damaged.

Firefighters, in an effort to save municipal records, dynamite a burning house next to Hancock Hall, where those records were kept; but the explosion sends flaming lumber into Hancock Hall, and it is lost as well. The flames spread so quickly that some fire squads abandon their flowing hoses and run for their lives.

The Ellsworth fire started about 9:30 p.m. on May 7, 1933, and raged for six hours. More than 130 buildings were lost. Image courtesy of the Darlene Springer Collection via the Ellsworth American

The city’s fire department has only two pumpers and a hook-and-ladder truck, so it requests help from other communities. Firefighters from as far away as Bangor, Bar Harbor and Belfast come to assist, hindered by highway traffic consisting of would-be spectators who hope to get a close look at the unfolding catastrophe.

As the wind-blown blaze spreads along Main Street, residents deploy garden hoses and bucket brigades in an unsuccessful effort to contain it. They also haul furniture from buildings in the fire’s path and store it in barns or simply pile it up outdoors. By the morning of May 8, most of the center of Ellsworth has simply disappeared, replaced by a smoldering mile-long trail of ruins.

Police arrest Norman Moore, a dishwasher at Tracy’s Restaurant, and interrogate him. Moore confesses to the crime. At his trial, the court finds him not guilty by reason of insanity and commits him to the state hospital for the mentally ill in Bangor.

The Ellsworth insurance firm now known as the Brown Holmes & Milliken Agency, founded in the 1860s, paid out many insurance claims in connection with the fire. The firm is still in business in Ellsworth.

A local printer’s home-movie documentation of the fire’s destruction, recorded the next day, is archived at Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport.

 

Joseph Owen is a retired copy desk chief of the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal and board member of the Kennebec Historical Society. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

 


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