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Dave Hackett: Deep roots in Harpswell’s and HHLT’s history

One in a series of profiles of people who played a key role in the first 35 years of the Harpswell Heritage Land Trust.

Dave Hackett gives a tour of the cemetery during Harpswell Day. (Julia McLeod photo)

Despite the underlying rocky ledges and the relatively thin layer of topsoil found throughout the town, roots run deep in Harpswell. For example, Harpswell Heritage Land Trust (HHLT) grew out of the Harpswell Heritage Trust, which was formed by the Harpswell Historical Society, which was founded in 1978 as an off-shoot of the Civic Committee of the Harpswell Garden Club, which dates back to 1931.

Dave Hackett, president of the Historical Society, was a witness to the more recent of those developments. He also knows something about having deep roots in Harpswell.

“I grew up in two houses on Lookout Point, one of which was my great-grandparents’, and I still live there, not a five-minute walk from where we are sitting today,” Hackett said during a recent interview at the Historical Society headquarters in Harpswell Center. He attended grade schools in north and west Harpswell before graduating from Brunswick High School in 1971 and going into the boat-building trade, following in the steps of his great-grandfather.

“History has always interested me,” Hackett explained, and that interest resulted in his being elected vice president of the Historical Society at the time of its formation. He was there when Walter and Helen Norton donated the money to purchase the historic Tarr-Eaton house in 1983. The Historical Society placed a historic preservation easement on the house and sold it. The Harpswell Heritage Trust was formed to enforce the easement. In the beginning, the two organizations had a common board of directors.

“But the interest in a land trust is a little different from a historical society,” Hackett noted. Ultimately, the boards separated and the Harpswell Heritage Trust held its first town-wide membership drive in 1992. In 1999, the word “Land” was inserted in the Trust’s name to reflect its primary activity of preserving lands. “It’s not exactly what we envisioned,” Hackett said. “We thought it would be a lot of little easements, not acquiring large pieces of property.”

Hackett said that in the early days of HHLT, some town residents were concerned that preservation would take valuable land off the tax rolls. “I wasn’t one of those,” he added.

Today, Hackett, who describes himself as the “town speechmaker,” brings his knowledge of Harpswell history to various HHLT events. HHLT and the Historical Society have also joined forces to revive the Harpswell Day celebration, which was a community event from the 1940s to 1974. Now it is held every October as a celebration of traditional handcrafts and subsistence skills.

“Harpswell Day was a rip-roaring success,” Hackett wrote in the most recent Historical Society newsletter. “We had many fine craftsmen plying their trades. I was both surprised and heartened by the amount and very great interest of the children of our town.”

Meaghan Gonsior photo

Hackett believes the most important future role for HHLT is to “address directly the environmental crisis we are facing because of climate change.” He noted that as a child he played in tidal pools that teemed with ocean life. “Today, there’s nothing there,” he said. He said he misses the smell of salt air permeating the town because the ocean is being diluted by melting glaciers.

“There’s too much change going on here,” he added. “Birch trees are in decline and aspens are going now. The clam fishery is in peril and lobsters can’t be far behind. Why aren’t we outraged?”

Hackett said HHLT’s outreach programs can play an important role: “Education is the key. We need to let people know what’s going on. The natural world is incredibly valuable.”