On a stormy night in November 1983, thieves took a pair of ladders from a Hallowell construction site, scaled the nearby fire station’s tower, and absconded with its weather vane. A city fixture since the late 1800s, the four-foot-long piece of painted copper, in the shape of a horse-drawn fire wagon, was among hundreds of such ornamental wind indicators stolen from New England rooftops in the ’70s and ’80s. “If you have an authentic antique weather vane, it’s like keeping loose money on the roof,” New Hampshire state trooper Guy Kimball told the New York Times in 1986.
The metal sculptures of ships, farm animals, and other emblems of 19th-century New England life had become highly sought after by folk-art collectors, some of whom paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for finely crafted specimens. “At the same time as that market started to heat up, you see this correlation where it’s worth some thieves’ time and effort to steal weather vanes,” says David Schorsch, a Connecticut folk-art dealer who specializes in antique weather vanes. “And there were some less-than-savory dealers who were dealing with people who were less than savory. So they fed on each other.”
In 1974, the 80-pound copper grasshopper that had hovered over Boston’s Faneuil Hall since 1742 went missing. Estimated to be worth as much as $300,000, it was recovered after a former steeplejack turned himself in. In 1981, Trooper Kimball helped convict a group known as the “yellow station wagon gang” (after the car they traveled in) for stealing weather vanes in Hillsborough, New Hampshire. And in 1987, an 1887 copper vane shaped like the Mayflower, valued between $50,000 and $100,000, was swiped from the roof of the Barrington, Rhode Island, town hall. It was never found and, today, a replica sails atop the Tudor-style building’s highest turret.
When the copper wagon was installed on the clapboarded tower attached to Hallowell’s 1828 brick fire station, it was a rather pedestrian flourish. By the time of its theft, it was an enduring symbol of the city, estimated to be worth between $20,000 and $30,000. A week after the robbery, Samuel Pennington, publisher of the Waldoboro-based Maine Antique Digest, was contacted by an anonymous caller who claimed to be in possession of the vane and believed it to be too well-known to sell. He offered to return it in exchange for the $1,000 reward the city was offering. After getting the go-ahead from Hallowell officials, Pennington met the caller at a Holiday Inn in Manchester, New Hampshire, then followed him by car to a wooded area nearby. There, a second man emerged from the forest with the weather vane and Pennington handed over the cash. One of the men, Kenneth Burgess, was charged with theft and received a year in prison and a $500 fine; the other was never caught.
Law-enforcement officials and antiques dealers advised against returning the Hallowell vane to its perch, but city councilors could not settle on a place to store it and whether to pay for a replica, so it went back up with a security-alarm cable attached. “It was a big hassle, and the council figured if it went back where it was, it would save money,” says Robert Stubbs, a lifelong Hallowell resident who served as mayor in the 1970s. Eventually, fears of another theft subsided. While antique weather vanes remain valuable — a circa 1870 one featuring a horse-drawn fire wagon sold for $437,500 at a Sotheby’s auction in 2020 — they’re rarely plundered anymore. “They’re so well documented,” Boothbay folk-art collector Ray Egan says. “If you stole one, you couldn’t resell it.”
In 2018, the Hallowell Fire Department moved to a new building, but the weather vane remained atop the former station until last spring, when the city hired an arborist to cut the wagon from its post. A local preservation group, concerned about the vane’s deteriorating condition, had lobbied for its removal. It’s now in an undisclosed location while officials await an appraisal and an estimate on the cost of having a replica made for the former fire station. Eventually, they hope to display the original in city hall. “The weather vane is sort of the emblem of Hallowell,” says Jane Radcliffe, a member of the municipal committee charged with caring for it. “I think it’s worth saving.”
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