One of the largest exhibits in the museum highlights sea creatures great and small, including a prize marlin landed by an American literary icon.
Photo Credit : Michelle Aldredge
Located a bit off the beaten path in the village of Hinckley, in Fairfield, Maine, the L.C. Bates Museum doesn’t look like much from the outside. Truth be told, the interior is a bit rough around the edges, too. But this is definitely one of those “don’t judge a book by its cover” situations, because the sprawling cabinet of curiosities within is utterly fascinating. In fact, this might just be the most interesting museum in Maine.
The L.C. Bates Museum | The Most Interesting Museum in Maine?
So, who was L.C. Bates and how did this museum come to be? As it turns out, the namesake Lewis Carlton Bates is not the founder of this eclectic attraction, but rather a local businessman and philanthropist who funded the collection’s expansion and move to its current location back in the 1920s. To learn the museum’s origins, we must look back further, to a man named George Walter Hinckley.
The story goes that one day a young Hinckley witnessed the punishment of another boy, who was hungry and had been caught stealing food from a workman’s dinner pail. Hinckley vowed to devote himself to helping children in need. Years later, in 1889, he founded Good Will-Hinckley, a residential school for underprivileged boys and girls.
Hinckley instilled his own philosophy and beliefs in this school, which featured nondenominational religious teachings along with training in farm work and skilled trades. It also reflected Hinckley’s belief in the power of personal interaction with both people and objects.
The school’s museum began with a donation of a small collection of rocks, including a stalactite, a piece of sulfur, and a fossil. Hinckley understood the value of a museum to inquisitive young minds, and he started growing the collection. Today, the museum comprises more than 10,000 archaeological artifacts, as well as thousands of other objects.
The museum is now housed in the 1903 Quincy Building, originally an industrial and training space but repurposed as a museum in the 1920s. The Quincy Building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978; the entire 525-acre campus was added to that register in 1987.
Many of the displays have been maintained in their original configurations (or as close as possible). As such, the L.C. Bates Museum stands as one of the best-preserved examples of an early 20th-century museum experience — a true “museum of a museum.”
More than a century after the museum’s founding, its educational exhibits continue to fascinate. There are galleries filled with specimens of birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, and insects and nearly three dozen habitat dioramas, many with backgrounds painted by Charles Daniel Hubbard, a notable American impressionist. From the extensive selection of Native American baskets to the vintage printing press in the basement, oddities abound. You’ll be able to check both a wooly mammoth tooth and a marlin caught by Ernest Hemingway off your “things to see” bucket list.
And the learning doesn’t stop at the museum walls. The grounds include an arboretum designed in part by the famed Olmsted brothers, an extensive network of nature trails, and a butterfly garden. There’s an observatory for stargazing and a bedrock formation that gives an up-close look at the earth’s crust.
After you spend a few hours wandering the exhibits, you’ll find it’s hard not to admire George Hinckley’s creation of an environment where it’s all but impossible not to be interested, to wonder, and to learn. And that never gets old.
Have you ever visited the L.C. Bates Museum? Do you know of another contender for the most interesting museum in Maine? Let us know!