Willie Irish plays the role of pauper Mercy Lovejoy on Aug. 2 at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore. Irish believes that roles like Lovejoy are important to tell the oft-overlooked history of poverty in Maine and America. Kay Neufeld/Livermore Falls Advertiser

LIVERMORE — In history books, the poor are often considered invisible, forgotten or overlooked.

The Washburn-Norlands Living History Center, a “living history museum, farm and archive” in Livermore is trying to tell those untold stories.

The Washburns-Norlands Living History Center tells the story of the Washburn family who lived on the property. While the Washburns are most prominently known for being a family of senators, foreign ministers, a war general, authors, successful business owners and more, their origins come from struggle and poverty.

Multiple fires transformed a small farmhouse into the mansion that visitors to the center tour today, where people play the roles of those who lived on the property or in the area and made Norlands’ clock tick.

On Aug. 2, the role-players in Livermore’s and Norlands’ narrative talked about why it is important to retell the history of poverty and what lessons can be learned.

Carolyn Lawson works as secretary of Norlands’ board of trustees and plays the role of Antoinette Fuller, a mother who lived in a nearby farmhouse with seven family members.

Lawson believes the living history center tells the story of “the most famous family that most people in Maine have never heard of.” However, she also notes that Norlands makes a point to tell a narrative that goes beyond “famous politicians and generals” and tells the history of the common person in Livermore — those who lived on the town farm, as paupers, families struggling to make ends meet.

Carolyn Lawson tidies up Aug. 2 at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore while playing the role of Antoinette Fuller, a housewife who lives in a small farmhouse with seven family members. Lawson believes that history is about more than wars and politicians, though the history books might tell a different story. Kay Neufeld/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Willie Irish is a Livermore native who plays Mercy Lovejoy, a pauper who lived on the town farm, also known as the “poor farm,” after she was abandoned by her 10 children. Irish believes that Norlands’ duty to tell the history of poverty is important “to know that history isn’t just about men and wars.”

“History is about you and me and everybody else, the common, ordinary person, the paupers, the poor people, the people just scraping by…,” Irish said. “That’s more important, or it is as important as the men and the generals and the wars and the battles, which is oftentimes what you get in the history books.”

Irish considers this history overlooked “because it’s not exciting” for people.

“A lot of ladies who come here and they want to work at Norlands, what interests them is they like to play dress-up, they like to wear the fancy dresses, the hoop skirts and all that sort of thing,” Irish said. “But that isn’t real life, that’s something else. That’s important, but it’s also important to find out about the common people and how they lived and scraped by.”

Three children and their mother stand Aug. 2 outside Washburn-Norlands Living History Center’s gift shop in Livermore where children are offered the opportunity to dress up alongside adult volunteers. Kay Neufeld/Livermore Falls Advertiser

Lawson believes that it’s “wars, generals, famous politicians” that are the focal point of American history “because they write the history books,” because “it’s a cycle.”

“People who are struggling to feed their children don’t sit down and write books. And even if they did, how would they get a publisher to publish it?” Lawson asked. “You don’t hear about the people who actually raised the cows and sold the butter to town. You hear about the rich people who bought the butter.”

Lawson believes Norlands’ approach to teaching poverty is a way to inform people that “there’s no ethics to being poor.”

“Good grief, a lot of it is just plain luck,” she said.

Lawson also sees these kinds of history lessons as a way to reflect on the present, that a lot of these stories — Mercy’s, Antoinette’s — do not “sound unfamiliar from today.” Ultimately, the history of poverty, told through these narratives, reflects what’s going on in modern times.

“I think you learn the lessons a bit more easily when it’s removed and then when you think about it, oh that’s not so different,” Lawson said.


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