Spending two summers unearthing a historic settlement in Pemaquid the late 1960s started a fire in Phil Averill that continues to burn. Averill was among the volunteers who helped Helen Camp unearth the area that would eventually become the Colonial Pemaquid State Historic Site.
“That sparked an interest in history that continues on to this very day,” Averill said.
Before Colonial Pemaquid’s historic significance was determined Camp allowed high school students like Averill help unearth old historical objects. Eventually it became clear the work required an expert’s touch.
“She let us help remove rocks until they called in actual archeologists that were trained in handling artifacts,” Averill said.
Nearly 50 years after that initial spark Averill led the restoration efforts of the Pemaquid Mill, help renovate the Old Bristol Historical Society’s Headquarters, and authored a history book with his daughter Erica Averill.
These days Averill’s primary focus is working on the restoration efforts of the Pemaquid Mill. The historical society decided to purchase the mill from Hammond Lumber Company in 2019 after realizing a great deal of the original equipment was still inside.
“Once we were in there we realized there is still a lot of the mill equipment in there. We could piece together to see what it was used for,” Averill said. “We have been reaching out to other local towns to see if they have any spare parts that are missing from our mill.”
Averill hopes to fully restore the building and, hopefully if the right parts are found, eventually turning the mill, though he expects that will take quite some time.
“That is probably three to five years out before we can turn it,” Averill said. “Maybe it won’t take that long.”
Before construction began on the mill in late 2019, Averill led the efforts to raise money for the project in conjunction with Coastal Rivers Conservation Trust. Eventually the fundraising effort led to Costal Rivers being able to purchase the property and sell it to the Old Bristol Historical Society for $1, according to Averill.
“We had a lot of generous people in the community help our efforts,” Averill said.
After working for decades in marine biology as a fisher engineer and educator on ocean life, Averill rekindled his passion for history in 2015 by starting an ad hoc committee called Pemaquid Peninsula Heritage Group to organize residents passionate about history.
“I did not feel the groups in town were adequately organized,” Averill said of reason for forming the committee. “Nothing against historical societies at the time they were just a quite group.”
Averill worked with the heritage group to create a map of historical sites throughout Bristol. Eventually the Bristol Department of Parks and Recreation updated their map to match the one Averill’s committee produced.
“They like mine and so I told them they could use it,” Averill said.
The map is currently available at oldbristolhistoricalsociety.org.
In July 2022, Averill and the historical society successfully completed renovations to the headquarters where historical documents will be stored in a climate control environment.
“People will be able to see them on display this summer,” Averill said.
Averill’s interest in history prompted him to co-author a book on the history of Bristol schools with his daughter Erica Marple.
“The idea originally started as a school project for Erica in eighth grade,” Averill said.
The 41-page book, published in 2001, contains images and descriptions of different building throughout the town that were once a school house. Titled “Woodstoves and Backhouses: School Houses of Bristol, Maine 1800 to 2000” the book is available on the historical society’s website at oldbristolhistoricalsociety.org.
Thinking a history degree offered limited career options, Averill majored in marine biology at Bates College in Lewiston, earning his degree in 1974. Averill added his masters in marine biology at the University of Delaware in 1975.
“I hated it in Delaware. Never been so cold in my life,” Averill said.
After college, Averill spent approximately 12 years working as Director of Fisheries Technology Service where he would test the efficiency and environmental impact of fish trolls, lobster traps, and scallop drags.
“Best job in the world,” he said. “It was great.”
During his time as director, Averill would test new ideas on fish trolls or investigate the impact scallop drags had on the ocean floor environment.
“We did a four-year study and found the drags did not harm the environment,” Averill said.
To Averill’s disappointment, state budget cuts in 1991 led to the termination of the program. Needing a new way to earn a living, Averill created a business called Ocean Adventures, with which he toured the state, giving lesson to elementary school students on how life survives in an underwater world.
For his new business venture Averill created six different lesson plans he could teach, and customized each lesson to his audiences’ different grade levels. Usually, once he was able to get into a school and start teaching one grade level he was able to convince the school to let him return to teach the other five lesson plans he had designed.
““I set it up so once I was in they would have me back every year,” Averill said. “All the kids would know me by the end of six years. I was the ocean guy.”
One of his most popular programs was the touch tank program which allowed first graders to interact with live sea creatures. The idea for Ocean Adventures came around 1992 after Averill had built an ocean museum on the Edgecomb side of the Donald E. Davey Bridge.
“I had built an open building for an ocean museum for adults, and a playground outside for kids,” Averill said.
Shortly after opening the doors to locals, two different visitors to the museum asked if he had considered doing a program for students.
“The first lady mentioned it and I said I don’t know about that and after the second one said something I figured well there is obviously an interest and a need so, I made it up,” Averill said on the creation of Ocean Adventure.
Averill’s connection to Maine starts with his grandfather who built a summer home in South Bristol in 1924. Born in Rhode Island, Averill would stay in South Bristol during his summer vacations from school.
“We would leave the day after school got out and return the day before school started,” Averill said. “I liked to say I lived in Rhode Island and grew up here.”
Once Averill graduated from high school in 1970 he immediately moved to Maine where he started school at Bates.
Today Averill lives in Bristol with his wife Jan Bacon. These days, when not working on the restoration of the Pemaquid Mill, Averill said he can usually be found resting at home, reading a history book.
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