THOMASTON, Maine -- The country's most visible link to one of the Revolutionary War's smartest generals dominates a hill in this small midcoast town. However, the significance of the General Henry Knox Museum is probably a mystery to a lot of travelers.
''Many people who visit the museum have never heard of Knox and only stop to see what the house is like. They absolutely have no clue who he is," said museum curator Ellen Dyer. ''They're surprised to find out all that he did in the Revolutionary War and that the country's first secretary of war lived in Maine."
Knox, a young Boston patriot and soldier, is credited with originating the bold idea that forced the British to flee his hometown on March 17, 1776, ending an eight-month siege. Although Boston celebrates Evacuation Day every year, the hoopla of St. Patrick's Day overshadows the amazing feat of Knox and his men, who brought 60 tons of cannon more than 300 miles from Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y., to Dorchester Heights in the dead of winter.
With the recent publication of David McCullough's best-selling book ''1776," in which the author portrays Knox's critical role in the war, the general's hero status is bound to be enhanced, said Dyer. McCullough is scheduled to participate in a museum program July 22.
The museum's story is as fascinating as Knox's. Built in 1929 on the northern edge of town, it is a duplicate of the general's home, Montpelier, where he and his wife, Lucy, moved with their family in 1895 after he left Philadelphia and public life. Knox recruited Boston housewright Ebenezer Dunton to design and build the 19-room waterfront mansion in a style to rival the estates of friends George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. The original house on the St. George River was torn down in 1871 to make way for the railroad's arrival in Thomaston. Some historians consider the museum one of the nation's most significant reconstructions of a landmark, according to Dyer. Last monththe museum's board of trustees officially changed the name from Montpelier to the General Henry Knox Museum.
In his orientation for a recent hourlong tour of the 14 rooms open to the public, guide Fred Rector, handsome in his Continental Army-style uniform, described Knox and his life here and how the replacement manse materialized.
After moving to Maine, Knox developed shipbuilding, lumbering, and brick-making enterprises, and built a lock system for the river. After his death in 1806, his estate fell on hard times. By 1854, the house was in disrepair, and remained vacant for almost two decades before it and eight outbuildings were razed.
Still, Knox was never forgotten here. In the early 20th century, the General Knox chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution started a campaign to re-create Montpelier. The cornerstone was laid in 1929 and the house opened to the public two years later.
The majestic home is a beauty, with fireplaces in every room, elaborate moldings, 13-foot ceilings, and tall windows. Among the important objects are a portrait of Knox and what was called a ''necessary kit," an 18th-century version of a travel box with tea set and shaving tools from the Marquis de Lafayette.
The mansion's flying double staircase is a gem. Rector shows off an original baluster that was copied for the balustrade. A journal on Knox's desk reflects his love of writing and journaling.
Dyer, who has been curator and director of education for a year and a half, recently made a research trip to Boston as part of a plan to reproduce wallpaper for the entire house. She found a Knox original that was new to her.
''It's like a treasure hunt finding and putting the pieces together," she said. ''That's what gets me jazzed up about my job."
Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.