AUGUSTA, Maine -- Of all the shops on Water Street, from the allure of lingerie to the sparkle of jewelry, who would think a few vacuum cleaners in the window would suck you into a shop?
That could be grandma's Electrolux, her Hoover, or her Kirby in the display window. Then there's the tall, thin, lightweight 1895-ish, wooden-handled hand-pump model that still picks up dirt. This window is a mini-museum.
''I tried other displays and people just walked by," said Dale Hatch, who owns Augusta Vacuum & Supply. ''This makes them stop in their tracks."
Augusta is like that. Sandwiched between the mountains and the sea, the state capital is easily bypassed by people heading to those places. But the city on both sides of the Kennebec River has an impressive state museum, a fossil-laced capitol, and a few other surprises. You just have to get beyond Western Avenue's strip malls and familiar chains, and the big-box retailers in the Marketplace at Augusta, near the 7,000-seat Augusta Civic Center.
Along the east banks of the Kennebec, between the low-lying Father Curran Bridge and the high span of Memorial Bridge, men in tri-cornered hats, knickers, and square-buckled shoes walk with women in bodices, long petticoats, and aprons in Old Fort Western. In this living museum, 18th-century life continues at the 1754 fort built during the French and Indian War and garrisoned by Captain James Howard on behalf of the province of Massachusetts. The Howards lived comfortably in the eight-room house, and the store was a trade center from Boston to Canada. Period objects including two-pronged forks and account books are on display from a time when bartering was still common.
''The mason paid his bill with that fireplace," said historical interpreter Roger Collins of the store's brick fireplace, constructed in 1781.
Up from the bluff and near rows of nondescript state buildings are the pleasant trails and groves of the Pine Tree State Arboretum. For more than a century, the former working farm sustained the Augusta Mental Health Institute with dairy, vegetables, meat, and wood for heating. The Maine Forest Service began to develop the land in 1981, and now a nonprofit organization oversees the five miles of trails for hiking, biking, and jogging. Come the snow, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and sledding take over among the birches and conifers.
Those aren't the only trails around. The Kennebec River Rail Trail gets its fair share of use in Augusta and neighboring Hallowell, with plans to extend it to Gardiner. Find the trail on the west side of the city near Capitol Park, across from the State House, with its Vietnam Veterans Memorial made of two steel triangles with silhouettes of two soldiers supporting a wounded comrade.
Touring the State House is an informal affair. The white-haired and mustached official tour guide, Bob Cammack -- he's been there since 1969 -- points out the portraits of the governors and gives details about the state's representatives and senators.
Though looking up at the rotunda is a must, so is looking down for fossils. There in the floor, about a dozen steps or so from the center, is a swirl-shaped fossil. A handful of marine invertebrate fossils inside the State House are more than 475 million years old. The theory is they came in limestone from Isle La Motte, Vt. (on Lake Champlain) and were part of capitol renovations in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The building was designed by Charles Bulfinch, the Boston architect also behind the Massachusetts State House. White Doric columns, old battle flags, and governors' busts are in the Hall of Flags, while the seasons are represented along with state wildlife in four dioramas by Maine artist Klir Beck downstairs.
Outside, at the corner of history-filled State and Capitol streets sits Blaine House, the official residence of Maine governors since 1919. The smart-looking white, semi-Colonial-style mansion is open to the public a few hours each week.
The star of the complex is the Maine State Museum across from the State House, with the state library and archives. The sites and sounds of the Pine Tree State are on display in the dimly lighted museum. Maine's railroad history is right there alongside the steam engine Lion, while the timber for logging is in the clutches of a 1920s-era gasoline-powered log hauler. Live salmon-sized trout are part of the back-to-nature exhibit. Archeology, shipbuilding, the rumble of the water wheel, the honks of old car horns (children love that one), stained glass, gems, looms, and products made in Maine are all there for the looking. Admission is a bargain at $2.
Beyond the museum doors is a sweet memorial to a native daughter: Samantha Smith. A native of Houlton, Samantha gained international attention as a 10-year-old in 1982 by sending a letter to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov voicing her concerns about nuclear war. He replied and invited Samantha and her parents to the Soviet Union. Three years later, she and her father died in a plane crash. Maine has designated the first Monday in June as Samantha Smith Day, and the bronze memorial portrays her releasing a dove, while a bear cub (representing both Maine and Russia) rests at her feet.
The Children's Discovery Museum houses displays to keep the little ones happy while throwing in some education for good measure. There aren't too many places for children to climb on heavy equipment, but the mini-bulldozer in ''The Construction Zone" here will attract them, as will a finger-painting station, post office, diner, stage, and a salmon migration floor game.
Augusta has culinary treats, too, including spicy jerk at Beale Street Barbeque on Water Street and fried chicken and seafood at the Red Barn on Riverside Avenue. In these parts, a hot dog with everything comes with sautéed onions, relish, and mustard. Try one at Don's Famous Franks on Mount Vernon or just over the city line in Hallowell at Bolley's Famous Franks. Both joints will fill you up for five bucks. Eclectic is the word for the coffeehouse feel at Slates in Hallowell, a colorful and funky restaurant that was once a gym, car dealership, and warehouse.
Contact Marty Basch, a freelance writer in New Hampshire, at email@example.com.