By Max Lorber, Staff Writer
Imagine that you are walking across a hardwood floor, a creaking sound underneath your feet. To the right are books, the old among the new, stacked on row upon row of shelving. In this room, knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation, for the past 160 years. There is an energy to the room, a feeling of antiquity that is as indescribable as it is unmistakable.
This is the library founded by the Maine Charitable Mechanics Association (MCMA), an organization that has existed in Portland since 1815. Forty-four years after the association was founded, Mechanics’ Hall was built as their official library and headquarters. This past Saturday marks the building’s 160th birthday. Completed in 1859, Mechanics’ Hall sits humbly on the corner of Casco and Congress Street in the heart of the Arts District in Portland. You might have walked past it for years and never notice that it was there at all. Walk through the door and up the stairs, and you will find the first non-academic library in the state of Maine, the eighth in the entire country.
“In our original charter, there is a phrase: ‘The diffusion of useful knowledge,’” said Thomas Blackburn, the superintendent of the MCMA. He went on to describe a world totally foreign to those who grew up in the era of the internet where education, even the ability to read and write, was a privilege and not a given right for everyone to enjoy. “The library was formed to provide members and their apprentices with educational opportunities,” he said.
The MCMA’s original mission was to promote and support craftsmen and entrepreneurs, encouraging them to exchange knowledge and information. Blacksmiths, goldsmiths, machinists, tailors, printers, plumbers, saddle makers, watchmakers, melodeon makers (a German-style folk accordion), shipbuilders, carriage builders; any master craftsmen — known as mechanics in their day — and their apprentices enjoyed membership within the organization. Apprentices would be educated on their trade, while also learning how to read and write. The organization was not only limited to mechanics; architects, lawyers, bankers, accountants and business owners were part of the association as well.
In the library, there were deliberations between members on the current political topics of the day. According to Herb Adams, local historian and member of the MCMA, slavery was a poignant topic of discussion at Mechanics Hall. Although the organization never had any direct political affiliations, in violation of federal law, they invited runaway slaves to speak at special events, raising money to assist other slaves escaping bondage. This association, and others like it, was and still is part of the patchwork that forms the bedrock of democracy: freedom of expression, the exchange of ideas, healthy debate and discourse and teaching the next generation to think critically.
Members mingled, networked, conversed, traded knowledge, educated one another, discussed and debated. This went on and on throughout the years, one generation replacing the next. Adams said mechanical drafting was taught in a classroom on the second floor until 1983. Now, in that very same classroom, the Maine Kids Code program teaches computer coding to young teens.
The MCMA has remained relevant to locals into the 21st century, with web designers, graphic designers, coders, and artists bringing new life to an antique association. There are currently 450 members, and they are looking to expand their outreach to attract young professionals and students. When asked about the benefits of membership, Thomas said members have the opportunity to “participate in a community of makers that are like-minded.” They have networking mixers, host lectures, and have specialized events.
Joshua Chamberlain, famed commander of the 20th Maine, attended events at Mechanics Hall after the Civil War was over, as told by Adams. On the fourth floor, there was a dining room where Union soldiers from Maine would eat and drink before shipping out to the battlefield. Scratches, known as Enfield marks, made from the gun sights of their rifles, are still visible on the ceiling by the entryway. “How many chances do you have to join a 200-year-old organization?” asked Thomas after passing underneath those marks.
Students are offered a free membership with the MCMA with a valid student ID, as well as the privilege of enjoying the 160 years of history at Mechanics Hall. Their library is open from Tuesday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Friday 4 to 7 p.m., and Saturday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
**Correction made to change the price of the student membership and add the library’s hours**