Small historical societies take on big challenges

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By Amy Chapman

It takes a lot of work to preserve the past, especially in small towns, where shoestring budgets and a small volunteer pool add to the challenges of caring for artifacts and researching local history.

Over the years, vital records have been lost to fire or neglect, family heirlooms have been lost or sold, and the names of people in old photographs have been forgotten.

Collecting artifacts, curating exhibits, and maintaining archives all take countless hours of painstaking work, almost always unpaid and often underappreciated.

But the presidents of three small local historical societies—in Woodstock, Greenwood, and Gilead—say it’s worth it.

Woodstock Historical Society

“It’s part of the history of the town,” said Woodstock Historical Society president Larry Bonney, looking over a collection that includes crank phones from the Bryant Pond Telephone Company, a pulpit and organ from the South Woodstock Church, and memorabilia from Woodstock’s centennial celebration in 1915.

He said the society is particularly interested in finding more information and photos about the South Woodstock/Perkins Valley neighborhood, adding that donations of items for the museum are received “all the time.”

“If we didn’t preserve it, I don’t know what would happen to it,” he said.

An interest in local history and in tracing their genealogies prompted Bonney and his wife, Elsie, to join the society in 1999. In the past few years, he said, he has had more time to devote to the organization, serving as its vice president and taking over as president after Olive Risko, still an active member, decided to give up the office.

The society’s collections are housed in a former railroad storage building that was purchased in 1984 from Annie Crockett, whose husband Robert had used it to store his antique cars. The building, which is well over a century old, has a full basement for storage, as well as two floors for exhibits.

To avoid having to heat the large, open space, monthly meetings are held at the town office during the colder months. Bonney said drastic fluctuations in temperature could also cause damage to some items in the collection, so it’s best to keep them in “cold storage” for the winter.

Greenwood Historical Society

In Locke’s Mills, artifacts and local memorabilia fill two houses on Main Street owned by the Greenwood Historical Society, which formed in 1979.

The Swan House, purchased in 1980, contains exhibits, archives, a meeting room, and a darkroom. The Bennett House, next door, houses the overflow.

“We may be the only historical society in Oxford County with a darkroom,” said Greenwood Historical Society president Blaine Mills.

A unique part of the Greenwood Historical Society’s collection is a set of nearly 2,000 glass photo negatives, taken over a century ago by local photographers Nettie Cummings Maxim and Guy Coffin.

Maxim, who lived on Bird Hill for nearly all of her brief life (she died in 1910 at the age of 33) was a self-taught photographer with a natural talent for composition and detail.

“The society was given all of Nettie’s glass negatives by her children, Walter and Winnie,” said Mills, who was fortunate to be able to identify many of the photos’ subjects through frequent meetings with the donors before they died.

The negatives were stacked together without envelopes and had to be carefully separated, cleaned, sorted, and labeled, he said, a process that took him about two years.

Mills has also spent years researching Greenwood’s residential districts—neighborhoods with names like Shadagee, the Tubbs District, and the Irish Neighborhood—and compiling his research in book form.

Although he does not use a computer, preferring a typewriter instead, he makes copies of all of his typed research on acid-free paper. One set goes to the Maine State Library in Augusta, where it is kept in binders and made available to researchers.

Gilead Historical Society

The Gilead Historical Society was organized in 2004, following the town’s celebration of its bicentennial that year, with the mission “to preserve the history of the Town of Gilead for future generations and to continue to improve the town’s lands and buildings.”

In its short time in existence, the society has been able to restore the 1851 Gilead railroad station, reported to be the oldest still standing in the state, as well as the 1903 Gilead schoolhouse, which had to be moved to make way for the rebuilding of Route 2 several years ago.

Both buildings, now located on the corner of Depot Street and Bridge Street, next to the town office, contain exhibits that recall their original uses. A ticket window, waiting room bench, and small woodstove are set up in the railroad station, and the schoolhouse features old student desks, pull-down wall maps, and an antique organ.

On summer weekends when volunteers are available, or by appointment on weekdays, the buildings are open to the public, said society president Lin Chapman.

And, she added, “We have lots of people stop by to take pictures, and if we notice them, since we live almost next door, we go over and open up.”

Addressing challenges

Each of the small historical societies faces similar struggles. Being located in towns that range in population from 200 to 1,200 residents means that a great deal of work falls on the shoulders of a few willing volunteers, and getting adequate attendance at meetings can be a challenge.

After meeting monthly for many years, the Greenwood Historical Society recently voted to hold meetings only during the warmer months, from May to September. Mills said the move will save money on oil, but also came in response to low attendance.

“We had a lot of members early on,” he said, “but a lot of them were senior citizens.”

Many have since passed away, or are unable to come to meetings.

“We need at least five members at a meeting for a quorum,” Mills said. “We can’t conduct any official business with fewer in attendance.”

Mills said he hopes some younger people will step up to take over some of the tasks of researching and archiving.

“I’m not going to be able to do it forever,” he said.

Rather than holding regular monthly meetings, the Gilead Historical Society puts its energy into organizing two main events, held each year at the Gilead Town Hall (although the Society is a separate entity, not affiliated with the town).

Friends and Family Day, held in June, is a luncheon that is open to the public, and is a major fundraiser for the society. The Annual Meeting and Luncheon in September is also open to the public.

“We present a program at both events that has something to do with Gilead’s past in some way,” Chapman said via email. “Both of the GHS buildings are open for these events and have numerous displays available for the public to view.”

Raising adequate funds to renovate and maintain buildings and properly care for collections is always a major focus for small historical societies.

“Funding is a big challenge,” said Chapman. “Applying for grants is a necessity since a small town such as Gilead does not have businesses that help support the society.”

The Gilead Historical Society received a $10,000 Belvedere Historical Preservation Fund grant from the Maine Community Foundation, administered by the Presumpscot Foundation, to help restore the 1851 railroad station.

Two recent grants, $3,000 from the Maine Community Foundation’s Sunday River Region Charitable Fund and $250 from the L.L. Bean Charitable Giving Fund, will be used to complete more needed work in the spring.

Bonney said 2014 was a good year for the Woodstock Historical Society, which has about 80 members and usually draws at least 15-20 to its meetings.

“We had a very good year fundraising,” he said. “We received a major donation from Patriot Renewables that allowed us to paint the exterior of the museum building.”

The society also raised money for new lights inside the building through raffles, yard sales, book sales, and individual donations.

Next up, Bonney said, is raising money for indoor plumbing, to eliminate the need to rent a Port-a-Potty during the summer months when the museum is open, and raising funds for a new computer system and printer.

Reaching out through social media

The societies are grateful for the support of their individual members, many of whom live out of town or out of state.

“A good part of our membership is made up of people who do not live in Gilead but have a connection to the town through their ancestors,” Chapman said. “These people have been very loyal supporters.”

Both the Gilead and Woodstock Historical Societies maintain close ties to their members through regular postings on their Facebook pages, where they share news, meeting information, photos, and videos.

The WHS Facebook page currently features photos from the 1915 centennial celebration and a short documentary on the Bryant Pond Telephone Company, which was the nation’s last hand-crank system.

Highlights on the Gilead Historical Society page include photos and notes from the September annual meeting and a photo of the railroad station during foliage season that appeared in Maine Magazine.

The Greenwood Historical Society does not yet maintain a Facebook page, but Mills said plans are in the works to have one soon.

Upcoming bicentennial celebrations

In 2015, Woodstock is celebrating the bicentennial of its incorporation as a town. The historical society is selling calendars with photographs from the 1915 centennial celebration and working with the town to plan a celebration in the summer.

Greenwood’s bicentennial will be celebrated in 2016, and a committee is already meeting monthly to make plans, which include a historical slide show, an art show, an exhibit of local minerals, a Locke’s Mills School reunion, and more.WHS Exterior 2

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