Dyer's time at the Knox Museum is history
Thomaston — While in graduate school, Ellen Dyer first became fascinated by the history and national legacy of Gen. Henry Knox.
"I drove my professors crazy — every single paper I wrote, every project I did, was somehow related to Maine," she said, becoming familiar with the Knox collection while in Boston.
Dyer has been working for the Knox Museum for 10 years to "honor the life and times of Henry Knox and the heritage of Montpelier." This will be her last year as the executive director of the museum.
The mansion was built as a memorial to the general in 1928 after the original estate was razed in 1871.
The reconstruction of the mansion began when the Knox Memorial Association was formed by a local Daughters of the American Revolution chapter. Henry Thatcher Fowler, Knox's great-great-grandson, was very interested in his family history and donated many of the general's family pieces as there were few descendants to pass heirlooms to.
"He was willing to give everything to the memorial association as long as they were willing to construct a fire proof place to store the pieces," Dyer said.
While Knox's national career was important in the founding of the country, Dyer finds Knox's settling in Maine one of the more interesting aspects of his life."When he came to Thomaston, he came to develop the state, bring settlers in and get industry started. He was an entrepreneur and looking to create a real thriving community," she said. The vast tract of land in Maine he inherited through his marriage.
As a young patriot in Boston, Knox was a bookseller when he met the privileged Lucy Flucker. Her father, Thomas Flucker, was the royal secretary of the province of Massachusetts Bay.
"Apparently, she was quite smitten with him from the very beginning and used to go to his bookstore. They wrote some lovely letters back and forth," Dyer said.
The Knox Museum does not have the original letters, but store the collection on microfilm.
Flucker's parents were distraught when she and Knox married and her father pulled some strings to get Knox a commission in the British Army. Knox tactfully turned the offer down and shortly after the couple disappeared from Boston and joined patriots outside of the city, Dyer said.
Flucker never saw her parents again.
"There are some historians that describe the Revolutionary War as the first Civil War, and it kind of was because you had a very divided country and a significant number of people that were loyal to the British crown and the patriot forces as well," Dyer said.
Knox is renowned for his trip to Ticonderoga, capturing 60 tons of cannon in Fort Ticonderoga in New York and carting it to Dorchester Heights in the thick of winter — driving the British from Boston Harbor. Knox fought along side George Washington and became the first Secretary of War. The men remained lifelong friends.
General Knox, a man who rose to achieve great success, died from a rather unusual circumstance.
"That is the story, that he choked on a chicken bone," Dyer said. In the memoir of Knox's oldest daughter Lucy, she recalls the fateful dinner.
There are other anecdotal assumptions, however, about his end that are more salacious.
"There's a historian in Camden that said she had seen a letter saying 'we didn't want to tell Aunt Lucy but, Knox was having lunch with this woman that was married' so there's this other story out there that he was killed by a jealous husband that caught him with his wife," Dyer said.
"There's a fabulous oral history with the tours, but it's also a game of telephone. If you're passing it down orally, it tends to mutate," she said, adding everybody's now on the same script and fact checking so historical house mythologies don't mar the history.
The mansion was christened Montpelier, although the exact reason why is unknown — local legend asserts Lucy chose the name.
"Knox taught himself French and Lucy had, as a matter of course, been trained in it as a young woman from an elite family. During the war they developed very strong ties with several French officers, James Madison’s house was also named Montpelier," said Dyer. Montpelier translates to 'Mount of the Pilgrim.'
Dyer was first hired to create an electronic database of the collections to make information more accessible and the museum was mostly a volunteer-run organization. The team published a collections catalog and decided to continue with the professionalization of the museum and its archives. The entry gate, parking lot and reconstruction of the back porch were large projects the museum accomplished in the last decade.
The yearly gala, a large support for the museum, has become a popular event, hosting prestigious guest speakers like David McCullough and Leigh Keno.
The most recent project the museum is undertaking is a renovation of General Knox's bedroom — looking at financial records of Knox's to effectively recreate what was used for wallpaper and carpets. The museum is also working on a refurnishing of the mansion with consultant Laura Sprague.
Landscape design is the next project of the museum. The active internship program is researching the project for the long term vision of the museum, and the organization will be working with a landscape architect. The design will honor the original property that was located on the St. George River in Thomaston, below Knox Street.
Dyer intends to stay in the area and take time to think through which direction she will go from here.
"In these 10 years we've had a fabulous time and I feel like I've done what I came here to do," she said.
Courier Publications reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at Jlaaka@courierpublicationsllc.com.