It’s hard to overstate the importance of local history to the residents of Maine’s islands.
Historical Preservation Fellow Betsy Walker has been aware of this strong sense of history ever since she first arrived on North Haven. She admits that she might be a bit biased, “I work with history everyday; it’s my job to think about it, to make it relevant to the present.”
But if the North Haven Historical Society’s new archives building is any indication, this is a community that takes its past seriously. The new building is a triumph, the product of years of tireless fundraising, through grants and a million-dollar capital campaign, by the North Haven Historical Society board and volunteers.
This well-lit, climate-controlled facility has dedicated storage space for the large collection of island-related archival materials, as well as a research library and meeting space. Betsy is the only full-time employee among a team of dedicated volunteers and it is her presence that allows for regular business hours.
The very act of collecting and archiving historic artifacts quietly changes the way islanders see themselves, and it changes the context of day-to-day life on the islands. Most of North Haven’s residents, both year-round and summer, have deep roots on the island. Many of the “summer folk” spend the season on property settled by their “rusticator” ancestors, who began summering on the island as early as the 1880’s.
Island genealogies have been carefully recorded over the years and are now part of the historical society’s permanent collection. Betsy enjoys the foot traffic at the archives generated by residents and visitors seeking out their family records, as it allows her to learn first-hand about the sometimes-complex familial connections. It has also placed North Haven within a regional and even national context: ” People with connections to North Haven come in from all over the country to research those roots. This place is special and relevant to them, even if they’ve never lived here.”
The collection maintained by the historical society includes everything from old clothing, textiles, boats, and tools, to maps, store ledgers, books, and photographs. One fascinating part of the collection is comprised of stone and bone tools that long pre-date European settlement on the island, found during the early 20th century by two amateur collectors, Oscar Waterman and George Burr, in the North Haven-Penobscot Bay area. The two North Haven residents carefully catalogued their finds by the location where they were found, and their efforts helped inform later research on the area’s pre-colonial Native American cultures. In addition to cleaning and documenting the collection last fall, Betsy has been working to create a display of the collection, which will be ready for the July opening of the adjoining North Island Museum.
Betsy especially enjoys sharing her enthusiasm with local students. The new archives building is right next door to the school, which serves about 68 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Her first project involved the 10th grade class’s effort to portray “North Haven: Then and Now.” The Island Institute’s CREST Program empowered the students, guided by teacher Louis Carrier, to incorporate GIS spatial location, ethnography, and web design into their project. With Betsy’s help, students found compelling photographs in the archives, and replicated the exact camera locations to record the same views now.
While the project itself was a great success, culminating in the launching of a student-designed web page that displays the comparative photographs, it meant a great deal to town leaders for other reasons. Nan Lee, president of the North Haven Historical Society, said, “I can’t tell you how excited we are to see high school students, sitting around a table here at the archives, full of curiosity and enthusiasm about old photographs! It takes a special young person to make this happen-and it gives us such high hopes that our work as historians and preservationists will be carried on long into the future.”
Betsy received a bachelor’s degree in history from Connecticut College in 2008. Moving to Maine was a logical choice for Betsy, as her family is from Owls Head, and the Island Institute’s Fellows program has offered her a unique opportunity to work as an historical preservationist in a state-of-the-art facility. North Haven’s undeniable beauty and well-paved roads (Betsy is an avid cyclist) are added bonuses.
But it is the people that have really captured her heart. “It’s a very fun community to be a part of…incredibly generous. Especially coming out here by myself, it’s good to know that when my car doesn’t start in the middle of winter I have friends who will come all the way out to my house to pick me up…the kinds of things you’d call your family to help you out with.” When not at work, she’s actively caught up in the present, helping as a baker and small-business consultant to a friend who is opening a bakery on the island.
Betsy’s Island Institute Fellowship runs through the summer of 2010. Although she feels good about her accomplishments thus far, there is still much work to be done. “I’m just trying to do as much as I can while I’m here-cataloguing, accessioning, things to make the collection more organized and accessible; this is the kind of work that doesn’t have an endpoint.”
Kathy Lane is the grants coordinator for the Island Institute.