D. Allan Kerr
Saturday, June 24 will see a pretty cool but unlikely pairing of two Maine icons, separated by more than two centuries but sharing a microphone to celebrate our nation’s birthday.
For the fifth year, Kittery’s own Gen. William Whipple will return to his hometown to offer a public reading of the Declaration of Independence he signed back in 1776. He is the only one of this genius document’s 56 signers born in Maine.
And in twist that likely would have shocked the general nearly 250 years ago, he’s now scheduled to be introduced at the event by a woman who happens to be one of the most senior and influential members of the United States Senate – Susan Collins, originally of Caribou, Maine.
The event, known locally as Whipple’s Reading, will take place at Thresher Memorial Park, adjacent to Kittery Town Hall, at 0900 next Saturday. It essentially serves as a kickoff to local Independence Day celebrations throughout the area, which is fitting, since Kittery is Maine’s oldest town.
Personally, I love the idea of an 18th-century Maine legend being introduced by a 21st-century Maine legend to commemorate Independence Day. And having one of America’s Founding Fathers introduced by a powerful modern-day stateswoman reminds us just how far we’ve evolved in our remarkable maturation. Last year, another groundbreaking Mainer, Gov. Janet Mills, filled the same role.
But this will also be something of a full-circle experience for Sen. Collins and Kittery. Ten years ago this past April, she served as the keynote speaker for the dedication of the 129-foot USS Thresher Memorial flagpole in the middle of the town’s traffic circle. The pole is a celebrated local landmark today, but at the time there was some controversy over whether it should be installed at the site.
To me, her participation helped legitimize the project created to mark the 50th anniversary of the horrible loss of the Kittery-built Navy submarine. As it happens, next week’s ceremony will take place in a small park overlooking the flagpole, where the 129 feet of height represents the 129 men lost in the world’s worst submarine accident. And Whipple’s Reading will be right in front of the stone marker bearing the names of the lost Thresher crewmen and civilian workers who died that April morning in 1963.
There’s really a déjà vu aspect to this scenario. When I invited Sen. Collins to speak at the Thresher ceremony in 2013, I doubted she’d be able to fit the event into her busy schedule. Her staff initially indicated she couldn’t, but then worked some magic and made it happen. Likewise, I wasn’t all that optimistic when extending an invitation a decade later to our annual Whipple event, but she came through once again.
This time around, she’ll be introducing an individual whose impact has resonated in the Seacoast for centuries. Whipple – seaman, soldier, statesman and signer of the Declaration of Independence – was born in Kittery around 1730. There’s still a modernized version of the house where he grew up near the back gate of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Whipple opted for a rugged way of life at sea as a cabin boy in his youth, and retired as a ship’s captain by the age of 30. After settling down across the Piscataqua River in Portsmouth, he became a merchant and a local leader of the American Revolution. He was appointed colonel of the local militia and chosen to represent the New Hampshire colony in the Second Continental Congress in 1776.
As a brigadier general in the state’s militia, he saw action at the pivotal Battle of Saratoga in 1777 and the less successful Battle of Rhode Island in 1778. His sword is still on display today at the Moffatt-Ladd House, the National Historic Landmark in Portsmouth where Whipple and his wife Katharine lived throughout the Revolution. The horse chestnut tree he planted upon his return home from Philadelphia after signing the Declaration now towers over the property.
(Spoiler alert: Gen. Whipple will be portrayed by a reenactor at the Independence Day ceremony, since he actually passed away in 1785.)
Collins’ participation in this year’s event isn’t due to her politics so much as her legacy as a longtime national leader, dating back to her first election to the Senate back in 1996. She has the longest perfect voting record in the history of the United States Senate, and is the first Republican woman to be elected to five terms in office.
As one of the few senators in Washington apparently capable of working with the opposing party, Collins has long been a power broker in the capital. Locally, the Republican has been a tenacious defender of Kittery’s historic shipyard.
These iconic Mainers will be joined at the ceremony by the brilliant youngsters of the Piscataqua Rangers Junior Fife & Drum Corps, who have marched and performed in every Whipple’s Reading event conducted so far, even during the pandemic. The shipyard’s Color Guard and the Honor Guard rifle team will both take part in the ceremony as well. While the Color Guard has also been a consistent staple of the annual ceremony, Saturday will mark the first appearance of the rifle team, which will fire a salute following the reading.
This year’s ceremony was mostly funded, appropriately, by the Shipyard’s Naval Civilian Managers Association. At the conclusion of the event, the neighboring Kittery Historical and Naval Museum will host an open house with refreshments.
D. Allan Kerr is the organizer of Kittery’s annual Whipple’s Reading event.