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Historic Maine house will be saved, maybe just in time

In 1775, the Colburn House was the site of a milestone moment in the Revolutionary War. Now it's in need of repair.

PITTSTON, Maine — The foundation is falling in. The siding around the front door is breaking, falling off, and revealing gaps underneath. Windowpanes are missing. Even the Historic Site sign is leaning over.

The Colburn House needs saving.

The house, once with a stunning view of the Kennebec River, was built before the American Revolution, owned by Major Reuben Colburn, a prominent Maine lumber merchant and friend of George Washington.

And in 1775, it was the site of a milestone moment in the Revolutionary War.

“It’s the home where boats were built, 220 in 10 days, to send an army of 1,100 colonials with Benedict Arnold, when he was a hero, not a traitor, to go north to take Quebec,” said historian Tom Desjardins, who literally wrote the book on the Arnold Expedition.

Desjardins also served several years as the historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, and helped lead the last restoration of the house between 2011 and 2013.

Those repairs, however, did not last and the front of the 277-year-old house is in especially hard shape. It hasn’t been open to the public for a number of years.

Gary Best, regional parks manager for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, says there was no willful neglect of the Colburn House site, but simply a lack of enough money to meet all the needs.

Credit: NCM

“Our budget with parks and lands is quite meager, so we stretch that as far as we can,” Best said.

He says the parks and other sites that attract the most people have often won out in the competition for funding and agrees the Colburn House has deteriorated for lack of maintenance.

“We prioritize every day, every year. This site, we need to get caught up on the funding (and) that’s what we’re working on now.”

Best says the department is seeking a grant from the National Park Service because of the national significance of the house. They are also planning to use a portion of money the state received from the federal American Rescue Plan. The project, he says, will cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” and says the Colburn House is now a top priority for state action.

But it isn’t the only one.

Best says there are significant maintenance needs at other historic sites, as well as parks. The whole state system of parks and historic sites, he says, faces a $100 million backlog of deferred maintenance.

That backlog could be substantially reduced in the next several years because the department is getting $50 million in federal ARPA funds to rebuild infrastructure in the parks and historic sites—the largest such investment ever, according to a department spokesman.

Best says it’s definitely time for work to get the Colburn House built back to where it should be so that visitors can once again see it and learn.

“We want to make sure we take care of all of these sites. Every single one of them has tremendous significance. They didn’t become a state historic site on a whim. They mean a lot to Maine."

Credit: NCM

Desjardin says this particular site is truly an important one, because of the importance of the Arnold Expedition It was both a heroic and tragic story, he says. Of those 1,100 men who left Pittston in boats. Only 400 made it to Quebec. Their siege of the city ultimately failed but had an impact later in the war.

“So what started here with 220 little boats built by the guy who lived in this house,” said Desjardins, “won the revolution years later at the Battle of Saratoga.”

Arnold, Aaron Burr, and others stayed in the house with Colburn in 1775, as they made their final preparations and then headed upriver into the wilderness

“It’s one of those stories many in Maine don’t know about … but when they find out about it they say, ‘Really?”

It may take another two years of planning, patching, and then major repair, but Gary Best says the Colburn House will continue to stand here, just above the river so that future generations can learn the story.

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