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History students find Maine's forgotten WWI monuments

Image of Maine WWI Monument in Kittery

To Libby Bischof, Maine's World War I monuments — statues and obelisks, tablets and tableaus — are the forgotten remnants of a forgotten war.

They decorate city halls and cemeteries. They sit astride public parks. And they hide in plain sight.

"We don't always pay attention to the historical landscape that we live in, mostly because it is familiar to us," said Bischof, an associate professor of History.

Beginning in 2014, she began sending her students across Maine to document as many of the monuments as they could find.

Libby BischofTheir collection of photos and accompanying archival information have become the backbone of a still-growing repository, the Maine World War I Memorial Inventory.

The database includes memorials from dozens of Maine cities and towns. Among them are one each from Gorham and Lewiston and seven from Portland.

The images and data were collected by students and Bischof, beginning with her World War I "Culture, politics and memory" class.

"I like to do hands-on work with my classes," Bischof said."I like them to contribute to something of greater lasting impact than just writing essays, which I have them do too."

The on-going war centennial made it timely, particularly as events recall the catastrophic war that mobilized 70 million military personnel and cost 16 million lives.

The fighting ended on November 11, 1917 on "the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month."

"I think the centennial has really been the impetus for a lot of people in this country to see these monuments and the shape they're in," Bischof said. "I also saw this as kind of an extension of my work in public history."

With each monument comes a little sleuthing.monument image

"Every time I go to a new place, I take the back way," Bischof said. "You look by the town hall. You look by the library. You look in the cemeteries."

While some monuments are better known — such as the grand tableau on Route 1 in Kittery — many have settled into the background.

Often, Bischof and her students hunted for monuments by getting in their cars and roaming.

"You're looking for something that you think exists, but you're not sure it does," she said. "Not every town has one."

And sometimes, even the experts don't know.

For instance, Bischof was driving along Route 1 in a small town and pulled over.

"They have a nice, big memorial right in front of the town offices," she said. She then went inside for more information.

"I asked, 'Do you have any more World War I monuments in the town?'" Bischof asked.

"No, we don't think so," the town worker replied.

Bischof climbed back into her car and into the slow-moving summer traffic.

"I looked out of my car window and saw another monument on the green," she said. "People don't pay as much attention to monuments and landmarks as they should."

And some monuments don't seem like monuments.

"They're not always a statue with a stone or a plaque," she said. "The living trees along Baxter Boulevard in Portland's Back Cove are a memorial."

Bischof and her students' work resides online within the USM Digital Commons. It has also been added to a national database.

Often, the discovery ends with reading a list of names on a tablet and recalling why they were set in stone.

"You read these names and think about their sacrifices," she said. "You think about how they left their homes and their families. I wasn't prepared for how powerful it is."