COLUMBIA FALLS — As Maine celebrates its bicentennial next year, Marie Emerson wants the festivities to include recognition of what she considers to be Maine’s biggest asset — wild blueberries.
To that end, she and her husband, Dell, have created the nonprofit Agricultural Wild Blueberry Heritage Center and Virtual Museum. The museum already has a digital presence at wildblueberrymuseum.org. A grand opening for the physical museum is scheduled for July 15, 2020.
“It’s really important we do this for the bicentennial,” Emerson said.
Columbia Falls used to be number one in blueberry production in the world, she said, adding, “not in the country or the state, but in the world.”
At one time, there were thousands of wild blueberry growers but now only about 300 remain, making the industry’s future uncertain.
“Will this 60,000-acre asset for the state of Maine disappear?” said Emerson, who is also co-owner of Wild Wescogus Blueberries. “It’s the rainforest of Maine — if we don’t lose it.”
The museum is now under construction at Wild Blueberry Land, a gift shop and bakery the Emersons also own and run. The shop floor plan was recently modified to bring visitors into the blueberry-shaped building through one of the doors, and guide them to the entrance to the museum.
Shelves of merchandise, a showcase of sea glass, the cash register and the bakery currently form a wall separating what will be the museum from the rest of the store.
A mannequin dressed as a Civil War soldier, whose head is barely visible above the barrier, is so far the biggest feature of the future museum. Local growers sent canned wild blueberries to Union men, Emerson said, joking that the nutritious food helped the North win the war.
The heart of the exhibits, however, will be a section dedicated to the histories of local blueberry farming families. This will be the museum’s most important feature, said Emerson, “because we’re losing them rapidly. The story of the farmer is probably key to the whole museum, to preserve those families.”
Other exhibits will cover geology, Native Americans, technological advances and the health benefits of wild blueberries.
Visitors will be able to watch a video of a geologist discussing how the glaciers impacted the local landscape and how wild blueberries were among the first plants to grow in the area.
“You can see 300,000 years in some of the cuts here,” Emerson said, pointing to a photo of the rugged local landscape. Another part of the exhibit will show visitors the anatomy of a wild blueberry plant, 70 percent of which is underground.
It’s only fitting to dedicate a section of the museum to Native Americans who were growing and harvesting the fruit long before Europeans arrived, she said. Wildlife will also be included and its importance explained with the aid of a giant talking bear figure.
Another section will cover the advances in technology that allowed farmers to quadruple the harvest yield following the Morrill Act in 1862. The act, which was sponsored by former Vermont Sen. Justin Smith Morrill, established land-grant colleges that eventually transformed agriculture.
“He wanted farmers to have an education,” Emerson said.
Other exhibits will continue outdoors.
“The outside [will be] a walk through time,” she said, adding she plans to construct a replica of the Tabbutt Rake Co. factory.
Emerson said she is among a group of people who want to see Washington County named a National Heritage Area because of its wild blueberries. This designation, which would come from Congress, is for “places where historic, cultural and natural resources combine to form cohesive, nationally important landscapes,” according to the website for the National Park Service, which administers the program.
“Maine is the only state in New England without a national heritage area,” Emerson said.
She plans to attend a National Heritage Area summit meeting and hopes local conservationists and other interested parties will, too. Sponsored by the Sunrise County Economic Council, the meeting will take place from 1-4:30 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Schoodic Institute’s John G. Moore Auditorium.