While digging through ceiling-high piles of boxes for a summer book sale, Fort Fairfield librarian Barb Wells-Alexander stumbled upon a mysterious wooden crate a little smaller than a refrigerator.
Clearing off the top, she called to her colleague Lynn Cote to come take a look.
“I said, ‘There’s a Fort Fairfield Rifle and Pistol Club thing here,’” she said. “Lynn had heard rumors about it being down here, but had never found it.”
Inside was a large firearm, a complex mechanism of polished iron about 4 feet long and a foot and a half high, complete with a mount and imprinted with “1918 M.G. 08, D.W.M., Berlin” — a 1918 German-made machine gun.
The librarians didn’t know it yet, but the artifact’s history ties together an inventor from Sangerville, an English queen, German forces and a gun called “The Devil’s Paintbrush” because it could paint an area red with blood. And this worldly weapon somehow found its way to Fort Fairfield.
In the library basement that day, Wells-Alexander and Cote were unsure how to proceed. Library advisers recommended calling law enforcement since they didn’t know if it was operable or not, Wells-Alexander said. Town police confirmed the weapon couldn’t be used.
Both women are fairly new to the library and did not know the gun’s history, Wells-Alexander said. After researching and talking to some residents, they discovered Hiram Maxim of Sangerville invented this type of weapon. It was designed in England during the Victorian era, built in Berlin and used by the German army.
Local historian Jeffrey McNamee wrote about the gun in a paper, which is at the library.
Maxim’s father, Isaac, had thought of an automatic gun before the Civil War, McNamee wrote in “All Was Not Quiet on the Western Front: Fort Fairfield Public Library’s Old Machine Gun.” Maxim made drawings based on his father’s idea, but a Bangor gunsmith didn’t have tools or money to create it.
Years later Maxim, an electrical worker and inventor, moved to England. In 1884, he introduced a water-cooled, .45-caliber machine gun that could fire more than 600 rounds per minute, McNamee wrote. Two German factories produced Maxim’s machine guns. One was Deutsche Waffen und Munitionsfabriken — the D.W.M. marked on the weapon.
McNamee called it “the most murderous weapon of World War I” and speculated on several ways it might have come to the town: It could have been one of the surrendered MG 08s that were sent to Legion posts around the country. It may have returned from WWI with a military unit or been a gift of the government.
The gun was nicknamed “The Devil’s Paintbrush” because of its killing power and its ability to shoot 666 rounds per minute, according to strangenewengland.com’s article “The Dark Legacy of Hiram Maxim and the Devil’s Paintbrush.”
Wells-Alexander speculated Maxim might have brought it to town himself. There is a record of him speaking in Stevensville, which used to be near Fort Fairfield, and he may have had nearby relatives, she said.
The local VFW and pistol club members cleaned and reconditioned the weapon, according to a March 4, 1998, article in the Fort Fairfield Review. The gun was displayed at the library that year.
Fort Fairfield resident Gerald Saccucci remembers the MG 08 well. He painted it in 1998 and built the box it was stored in.
It’s inoperable because parts are missing, including its original barrel, he said.
“There is another kind of rifle barrel in it [for show], but it can’t be connected to the gun,” he said. “There’s probably nobody still alive that knows how to work it if it was operable.”
Saccucci isn’t sure how the weapon came to town, but a woman known only as Mrs. French was somehow related to the person who brought it to Fort Fairfield, he said.
The Rifle and Pistol Club acquired the piece when the VFW ran out of room to store it. Member Del Alward cleaned it and Saccucci painted it, finding a close match to the original color through the National Guard, he said. But the club had no place to keep it, either, so it went to the library.
Now, the century-old artifact is getting a new life in the public eye. It was shown at this summer’s book sale, and the town council voted recently to turn the artifact over to the historical society.
The gun is bound for a permanent home in a sealed display case at the Fort Fairfield Blockhouse Museum, Wells-Alexander said.
She’s glad about that, because it’s a part of history that deserves to be seen.
“It belongs to the town,” she said. “It shouldn’t be in the basement of a library.”