AUGUSTA — For a few moments Tuesday, Carlene Bickford sat on a bench inside the palisade fence that encloses Old Fort Western, keeping a watchful eye on her grandchildren.

For the Fourth of July, she was separated from her grandchildren not by decades, but by centuries. They and their parents were re-enacting the history of the wooden fort, which is the oldest surviving garrison from the French and Indian War, the nine-year conflict that pitted settlers in British America against the settlers of New France and their Indian allies.

Every year, the fort, which is both a National Historic Landmark and a living history museum, draws back the veil of history to give a glimpse of everyday life along the Kennebec River in the decades before 13 American colonies declared their independence from Britain, sparking the Revolutionary War.

“This is the first place the Declaration of Independence was read,” said Linda Novak, director and curator of Old Fort Western, standing on the grounds of the fort. The fort, which was converted to private use after it no longer was needed for frontier defense, was where town meetings were held when Hallowell stretched up the Kennebec River to the head of tide, and where people in the surrounding area came to trade goods and news.

That tradition continues today, following the directive of Gen. George Washington on July 4, 1778, that a special ceremony should be held, by firing 13 pieces of cannon, to honor the original 13 colonies, and lowering the British colors and raising the new American flag.

And so it was Tuesday at noon that Greg Edwards stood in the blockhouse at noon and fired one of the four cannons on the building’s upper floor, where the slightly sulfurous smell of black powder lingered well into the afternoon. The charges, wrapped in tinfoil, were designed to make smoke and noise, and they delivered admirably.

Dressed in period clothes and with balsam fir tucked in his tricorn hat, Edwards said the holiday is a chance to open the fort and let people realize the history the fort represents.

“History is a lot like mathematics,” he said. “One question leads to another.”

Novak said the fort is a connection with the past, a tangible and living thing, and July Fourth is always a good day, usually bringing anywhere from 150 to 400 people through the gate, depending on the weather.

“There aren’t many details of the first reading here,” Novak said. The museum’s collection includes the ledger books of the store that operated on the site, and details gleaned from probate about what was in the buildings when its owners died and other writings, but no accounts in journals or letters of what happened the first time the document was read.

Later, Augusta’s annual July Fourth parade, which marks the end of the region’s three-week Whatever Family Festival, would start at 4 p.m. and wind its way through Augusta before ending at the fort; and Augusta Mayor David Rollins, garbed in 18th-century-style clothes, would give the traditional reading of the Declaration of Independence. Daniel Savage’s Company’s “feu de joie” — a celebratory musket salute — would accompany the reading, and the Liberty String Band would play patriotic tunes. And when darkness fell, fireworks would light the sky from Mill Park.

As she sat on the bench by the palisade fence, Bickford reached for one of the vests she had sewn by hand for her grandsons to wear.

“It’s not wool or linen,” she said, referring to the two fabrics widely used in 1700s America for clothing and smoothing the brown fabric under her fingers, “but it’s all hand-sewn. I love hand sewing.”

But more than the chance to dress up and play with the simple toys of the day, she said, her grandchildren will benefit from hearing the Declaration being read.

“Because it’s an important document that represents our country, the kids need to know it,” she said. “It’s an original document and young people need to hear it.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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