It Happened in Windham: Town had the spirit in '76

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With the Fourth of July just around the corner, many of us are preparing for family cookouts or a party with some of our favorite friends. And while we can get pretty busy getting ready for those events, nothing can quite compare to the town of Windham’s preparations for the 1976 celebration of our nation’s 200th birthday.

It all began in December of 1974 when a special meeting of the Windham Historical Society was called at the home of two of its members, Malcolm and Betty Barto. The purpose of the meeting was to see if there was interest in helping Windham to become one of the thousands of Bicentennial Communities that were being formed across the nation. Enthusiasm ran high and the meeting resulted with members of the Society sending letters to 34 businesses and organizations in town to see if they would participate in Bicentennial events.

The response was overwhelming and by January of 1975, a Bicentennial Planning and Coordinating Committee was formed. Their task was to help pull together everything that was needed to be recognized as a Bicentennial Community on the state and national levels. A program needed to be planned and an application had to be prepared. The final document was presented to and signed by Town Clerk Barbara Strout, who affixed it with the town seal and sent it off to Augusta where it was unanimously accepted by the Maine State American Revolution Commission. Windham was now officially endorsed as a Bicentennial Community.

The official Bicentennial kick-off event in Windham was an Old-Fashioned Box Lunch Social and Hymn Sing on May 11, 1975, sponsored by the Windham Hill Congregational Church. In August of that year, the Windham-Raymond Senior Citizens organized an antique and craft sale to raise funds. Thirty vendors were in attendance with the Windham Historical Society joining in on the fun.

In 1976, the town had 14 events planned that began in April and concluded in September with a Bicentennial Ball sponsored by the Windham Kiwanis and Ladies of Kiwanis. This dazzling gala was held at Saint Joseph’s College, and those who attended were encouraged to dress in full Colonial garb.

Another highlight of the year was seen on May 14 when the Bicentennial Wagon Train Pilgrimage came through town on its way to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. This event was coordinated with the Pennsylvania Bicentennial Commission, which organized caravans from each of the 50 states who would all arrive in Valley Forge on Independence Day.

But the biggest day of the year by far was the Fourth of July when Windham would see the grandest celebration in this town’s history. It was a very hot day, but that didn’t affect the spirits of those who marched in the parade that made its way down Route 302. Organizations and groups of all kinds participated. The veterans, of course, were there, as was Windham Fire and Rescue. The Chamber of Commerce and the Lions and Kiwanis Clubs marched. There were floats and baton twirlers, and the New Marblehead Militia, a group of Revolutionary War reenactors, was also in the ranks. Little children dressed as clowns were passing things out to the crowd.

Windham state Sen. Bill Diamond remembered, “It was a very patriotic time. People were proud to celebrate not only our nation’s heritage, but also the town’s rich historic past. There was an excitement that was contagious and civic organizations, church groups, garden clubs and individual citizens all took part in their own unique ways.”

Following the parade, there was a wonderful dedication ceremony in honor of the reopening of Babb’s Bridge. The bridge had been destroyed by fire in 1973, and  after much hard work and effort on the part of the Windham and Gorham Historical Societies, volunteers from both towns, and the National and New York Covered Bridge Societies, a replica of the bridge was constructed to be officially opened on the country’s Bicentennial. Officials from both towns were at the dedication and the New Marblehead Militia was at this event as well. The Militia was the first to cross the new bridge to the sounds of fifes and drums dressed in authentic Colonial attire. It was a glorious ceremony and people that attended still talk about it today.

The fun didn’t stop there. There was also a carnival that was held where Shaw’s Plaza and Bank of America are located these days. There were amusement rides,  food stands and fun games for people of all ages. It was a wonderful day that filled Windham citizens with pride and exhibited their sincere love of this country.

Hearing about the patriotic spirit of these events and about how people pulled together to make our Bicentennial Community stand out makes one a bit nostalgic for those times. We live in a divisive society right now. People are torn apart by party lines. We should all try to remember the values our nation was originally founded upon and treat each other with mutual respect as we continue to enjoy our inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. After all, that’s what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at haleypal@aol.com.

The New Marblehead Militia participated in Bicentennial events in Windham, including the dedication ceremony for the reopened Babb’s Bridge.

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