Anyone who wants to do research on families from the Deer Isle-Stonington area will find more information than they could hope for by making a trip to the Deer Isle – Stonington Historical Society on Sunset Road in Deer Isle. There, in a small room in the archives building, they can look through the 43 volumes of genealogical history that are the fruit of Dr. Benjamin Lake Noyes’s passionate interest in area families. And, if they want to go a step further and learn more about an ancestor’s work, or how the area looked in earlier times, or what important events were taking place, they can consult one of 37 volumes of Deer Isle history that are proof of Dr. Noyes’s far ranging curiosity. If researchers become curious about the man who compiled this detailed information, they can dip into the five volumes Dr. Noyes put together on the history of the Noyes and the Howard (his first wife’s) families.
A Renaissance man with intense eyes behind round wire-rimmed glasses and a serious moustache, Benjamin Noyes was described in vol. 27 of the “Biographical Review,” published in Boston in 1898, as a person who spent “all of his waking hours in self-improvement;” a person who “never lost time in idleness or dissipation;” a supporter of the Temperance Movement. Reading about his diligence and industry, it is easy to imagine a plaque on his desk with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life,” which ends, “Let us then be up and doing,/ With a heart for any fate;/ Still achieving, still pursuing,/ Learn to labor and to wait.”
He was the sort of person, says Paul Stubing, a historical society volunteer, who was always preoccupied with his ideas and projects. “When he was driving about the island, he never paid attention,” says Stubing, who summered on the island when he was a boy. “Everyone knew if they saw Dr. Noyes coming, get off to the side of the road!”
Early in life, Dr. Noyes became an accomplished painter, and later, he took up photography. If he had been able to afford to study in Europe, he would have chosen art as a career. He was a talented musician proficient on numerous instruments, including the banjo, violin, mandolin, piano, flute, piccolo and tenor drum. He was knowledgeable about Eastern American ornithology and zoology, which he became interested in when he served as first officer of the Davenport Expedition to tropical America in 1890-91. At that time, he was working as a pharmacist in Florida after completing training in pharmacology to complement the knowledge he had gained from his father, Dr. George Boardman Noyes, a physician and pharmacist.
Although born in Lisbon Falls, Noyes grew up on Grand Manan, New Brunswick, where he also learned the printer’s trade at a printer’s shop located above his father’s drug store, and developed a mechanical aptitude for fixing just about anything (engines and watches were mentioned). In 1985, at age 25, he established his medical practice on Deer Isle. He was among the first to use radiation in treating cancer, a procedure he had become interested in while attending Bowdoin Medical College.
Dr. Noyes’ collection of genealogical and historical materials, which he called the Penobscot Bay Archives and kept in the elegant home he built in Stonington in 1902, is astonishing in its breadth and detail. Each of the 43 genealogical volumes, about four inches thick, includes lengthy family trees, newspaper clippings concerning many of the people mentioned – their work, honors, marriages, children’s births, and finally, obituaries – photographs of people and their homes, letters they wrote, business transactions, and copies of relevant records from other Maine towns.
A few families, like the Sellers, Robbinses and Smalls, take up an entire volume; the Eatons and Haskells have two, the rest are combined, several families to a volume.
The 37 volumes that cover the history of the Deer Isle area and surrounding towns have a wide range of titles. Some are “Building the Bridge in ’39,” “Political,” “Recreation,” “Industry: Granite and Ice,” “Military,” “Photography and Printing,” “Transportation and Travel,” “Scenic,” “Hotels and Old Homes,” “Fisheries,” “Steamboats” and “Maps.” Each, depending on the subject, might include many clippings (he must have left the Rockland Courier Gazette in shreds each day), photographs, postcards town records, letters, and as in the “Maps” book, meticulous drawings. His street maps show the location of each home, labeled with its owner’s name in tiny print. One even notes the location of a “large rock.”
It seems that Noyes began his genealogical research because he was interested in determining the cause of a lameness that showed up in several generations of the local Haskell family. (Subsequent researchers have traced the lameness to a specific family gene.) Once started, Dr. Noyes never stopped. He collected information each time he visited a family (Deer Isle resident Allen Gott remembers him coming to his house with his black medical bag) and probably, as historical society volunteer Connie Wiberg surmises, made inquiries while he waited for babies to come into the world or elderly to leave it. He also wrote for town records in other parts of Maine and sent queries to relatives who no longer lived in the area.
No one is sure what drove Dr. Noyes to spend so much of his life seeking, recording, and preserving information, but whatever it was, having his material is a boon for the small Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society. Hundreds of people visit to use the material, including people who want to uncover their family trees, researchers working on dissertations or books and students writing papers.
“I don’t know what we would do without him,” says Wiberg. But, she goes on to explain, they almost had to.
Genice Welcome, Dr. Noyes’ daughter by his first wife, relates in a letter written in 1990 to the Maine Historical Society, that Estelle Noyes, Dr. Noyes’s second wife, sold the entire collection to the Genealogical Society of the Church Latter Day Saints in Utah. Estelle had learned about the Society when, after her husband’s death in 1945, she rented rooms to Mormons who were traveling and preaching throughout Maine. “Naturally, the family was very disturbed,” writes Genice. “I assumed we’d never see the books back here.”
After the books were gone, she says a Mrs. MacKay and Mrs. Carman, officers of the Deer Isle-Stonington society, who were determined not to lose all of the material, traveled to the Maine Historical Society in Portland, where Dr. Noyes had sent a copy of the genealogical material he’d collected (he also sent one copy to the New England Historical Society). They brought back the family histories a few families at a time, copied them and returned for more, a project that kept them busy from 1966 to 1972. This ensured that the historical society, which had been established in 1959, could at least provide the genealogical data for researchers.
They did without the intriguing clippings and additional material until, in 1983, the miracle of modern technology intervened. The Mormons transferred their collections to microfilm and wrote to the Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society, offering to return the complete collection. “We were happy to accept it, believe me,” wrote Genice, who at that time was secretary of the Society.
The Deer Isle-Stonington Historical Society Archives are open year round, 1 p.m. to 4 pm. Wednesday and Friday. The Society also features the old Sunset Post Office and the Sellers House, built in 1830, which is restored and filled with numerous exhibits that display clothing, furnishings, art and artifacts from the Deer Isle area.
For further information call Tinker Crouch, president, at 207-367-2629 or write the society at P.O. Box 652, Deer Isle, ME 04627.