Suzanne Norton picked up her daughter, Andrea, last week, drove to Bath and parked near an old riverfront warehouse.
Inside the building, which is now a headquarters for Maine’s First Ship, a local history center, she met her sister, Jane Burke, and a pair of cousins she rarely sees, Sally Boucher of Dover, New Hampshire and Nancy Lebel of Popham.
The cousins gathered for a special occasion, as the First Ship group named their building in honor of a very special woman, another cousin, the late Jane Stevens.
Jane lived in an old cottage perched on the edge of a steep cliff that frames Atkins Bay where in 1607, a group of Englishmen tried to plant a colony.
They anchored and landed some 120 men and supplies, just a few yards from Jane’s cottage. There, they built a little fort, which they named St. George.
The settlement lasted for a year or so, which was a lot longer than I would have lasted camped out, summer and winter at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
On Wednesday, the foundation acknowledged Jane Stevens, as the spirit, chief cheerleader, secretary, hostess and guiding light, beginning with the volunteer archeology group that discovered the colonial settlement and is now building the ship.
Her involvement began in 1994 when an archeologist knocked on Jane’s door. Some say she told him to dig over there between the parking lot and the shore. And they did. After a few summers sifting in the dirt, they found evidence of the colony.
Jane’s kitchen table became their headquarters. But the volunteer archeologists found more than a lost colony, they found a treasure named Jane.
She was one of those remarkable Maine women who dazzle you with their personality and talent. She had worked as a reporter at the old Bath Times. During the war, she worked at the Bath Iron Works, was the elected recorder of deeds in Sagadahoc County. She played the cello and hung out with her pal, Southport artist Ruth Rhodes Lepper. She raised a ton of money to preserve the Popham Beach Chapel.
Years ago, a relative gave her a box of old glass photo negatives that had been created by her uncle, a steamboat captain on the Kennebec.
Jane figured a way to print the photos and used them to illustrate her family’s history of sailing and living on the Kennebec River. It is called “One Man’s World.” You sometimes run into a copy at antique shops and flea markets. If you find one, grab it. It’s a treasure of Maine coastal lore after the Civil War.
Suzanne Norton, who everyone knows as Sannie, and her relatives joined with other volunteers and history buffs to honor Jane’s memory. While waiting for the ceremony, they walked through the boat shed that was cobbled together with wood and plastic. Inside, shipwright Rob Stevens and other volunteers are building a vessel that is a pretty good approximation of the Virginia. She will be 51 feet long with a beam of 16 1/2 feet. The smartest thing the Brits did was to bring along a shipwright who built a sailing vessel which they named Virginia. We don’t know what it looked like, but the records say she “was a pretty pinnace of about 30 tons,” said Orman Hines, the president of the shipbuilding project.
Inside the newly named Jane Stevens Visitor’s Center, dedicated volunteer shipbuilders carved deadeyes, turned belaying pins, and wrapped rope with canvas. In the boatshed, they clamped steamed stout white oak planks to the frames, fastening them with wooden pegs called “trunnels.”
After the officials praised Jane’s contributions and acknowledged a gift from Bob Weggel of Reading, Pennsylvania (who is married to another of Jane’s cousins), Sannie spoke of the time Hollywood came to Atkins Bay to shoot a movie starring Paul Newman, Kevin Costner, and Robin Wright called “Message in a Bottle.”
As the movie crew was shooting a car driving on the lane in front of her house, she noticed they kept brushing into the bushes at the side of the road. Finally, Jane just stepped into the shot and informed the crew boss that the bush was about one foot wide and, if they weren’t careful, their car, and the actor, would fall down a cliff into the water.
Then someone remembered how Jane smiled at tourists photographing what looked like a picturesque fishing shack across the street from her house. “For Pete’s sake, it’s a privy,” she would say with a rugged laugh.
Maybe it was her rugged laugh and obvious love of her home that inspired dozens of amateur archeologists and woodworkers to donate thousands of hours to rediscover a forgotten chapter in the history of Maine.