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September / October 2004


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Experiencing History

 


Experiencing History
Fogler Library's Special Collections provides an enriching exploration of the past

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It's one thing to read about history. It's another to hold it in your hands.

Diaries of sea captains, letters from suffragettes in Maine, an early manuscript of Carrie make us vicarious eyewitnesses to history in the making. Original footage of a 1930s log drive transports us like a time machine to the riverbank where the cameraman stood. We peer deep into the eyes that stare out at us from photographs of the past, looking for a glimmer of recognition, searching for understanding of what these people women, children and men saw and experienced.

Some of this history already is displayed in museums, interpreted in books and sensationalized on the silver screen. Most of it is not. What makes archives like the Special Collections Department of the Raymond H. Fogler Library at the University of Maine so compelling are the original, unadulterated threads of history that are woven into the colorful tapestry that is America's past.

"Historical documents being artifacts directly created by the lives, communities and struggles of the past can convey a sense of history that can never be duplicated by books or movies," observes Richard Hollinger, head of Special Collections.

Fogler's Special Collections is Maine-centered and manuscript-dominated, largely rooted in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. At its core are the overarching themes of nature and the environment.

Its leading collections document the state's extensive logging and lumbering history. Letters, books, photos, business records and diaries similarly preserve the histories of other natural resource-based industries in the state, such as shipbuilding, farming, fishing, papermaking, ice harvesting, and slate and granite quarrying. Even the effect of the landscape on Maine politics and arts is reflected.
Such Maine-focused collections as those of folklorist Fannie Hardy Eckstorm and historian James Vickery are not "famous," yet they are incredibly valuable for their depth of documentation.

While many of the approximately 1,200 collections archived by Fogler Library are of regional interest to scholars, others are of value to researchers nationally and internationally. They include political papers of U.S. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen and Maine's current governor, John Baldacci. The James Russell Wiggins Collection documents political and journalistic history throughout the former Washington Post editor's 21-year tenure at the paper.

Papers of UMaine alumnus and author Stephen King, big band leader Meyer Davis and painter Vincent Hartgen are part of a growing collection focusing on artists, writers and the Maine "climate" deemed so conducive to creativity.

Also actively being developed is an archive of Maine women's history. Already in Special Collections is a range of documents, including the papers of the first woman to serve as a judge in Maine, Harriet Henry; plans by eminent landscape architect Louise Payson; and diaries of farmers and a 19th-century millworker.

1
Bill Cohen Archives
 

2 & 3
Hanibal Hamlin and Dime Novels
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Nurse Dolls
5 & 6
Eckstorm Collection and Talbot-Whittier Family Collection
7 & 9
Postcards and Browne Collection
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Floyd Gibbons Collection
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Maxine Elliott Collection
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Rare Book
 

A number of the manuscript collections include fascinating and surprising artifacts. In context, these objects of history have unique stories to tell stories that add to the experience inherent in an exploration of archives.

1. The William S. Cohen Papers is the University of Maine's most famous collection. Established in 1996, it includes correspondence, memos, reports, speeches, voting records, videos and photographs spanning the Maine leader's political career in the state, in the U.S. House and Senate, 197397, and as Secretary of Defense, 1997 2001. His papers document his involvement in both the Watergate and Iran-Contra investigations on Capitol Hill. Born in 1940, Cohen was first elected to public office as a city councilor, then mayor in his hometown of Bangor, Maine. In the state's hotly contested Second Congressional District race in 1972, he walked 600 miles throughout the district (in the shoes pictured above, the bright yellow sign posted on an accompanying vehicle) to "find out what is on people's minds." Walking and talking informally with his constituents became Cohen's trademark.

2. Dime Novels, a genre of popular fiction for adolescent audiences, were in their heyday in the 1800s. Young readers were introduced to adventure stories set on the frontier and on city streets, featuring historical figures like Buffalo Bill and characters such as Deadwood Dick. UMaine's collection of more than 1,700 pieces includes Beadle's Dime Novels.

3. Maine native and longtime U.S. Senator Hannibal Hamlin was Abraham Lincoln's first vice president. The winning of the so-called "Abra/Hamlin/coln" ticket was a trigger for secession of the Southern states. After his four-year term, Hamlin was not renominated. A month after reelection, Lincoln was assassinated, April 14, 1865. The Hamlin papers, documenting several generations of the Maine family, 18021965, include a letter written by Sarah Hamlin to her stepmother, providing an eyewitness account from the third row of Ford's Theater the night of Lincoln's assassination.

4. The School of Nursing at Eastern Maine General Hospital in Bangor, Maine, was founded in 1892. Today, its history is reflected in an extensive collection of photographs, yearbooks, scrapbooks, curriculum materials, reports and correspondence. Among the artifacts are dolls dressed in nursing uniforms of different eras.

5. Fannie Hardy Eckstorm was a folklorist and historian of Native Americans, a naturalist and musicologist. She also was an author who published extensively on all these subjects in the early 1900s. She often accompanied her father, a fur trader, on his trips up the Penobscot River. Eckstorm lived from 18651946; the collection spans 17301947. It includes documentation on ballads and legends, woodsmen and river drives; items from J.T. Hardy's fur trading business; and detailed information, including extensive photographs, on the Penobscots and other Maine tribes.

6. The papers of the Talbot-Whittier Family of East Machias, Maine, are an outstanding example of historical documentation. One descendent, Capt. Ephraim Chase, went to sea at age 7 and later sailed an armed schooner in the Revolutionary War. From other family members: an 1849 journal of a trip by ship to California; a Civil War diary; an 1894 account of a journey to Europe on the (first) Britannic. Family history is recorded through 1976.

7. Postcards are portals to the past, providing glimpses of history and culture. Fogler holds more than 8,500, including the Hoffman and Pottle Postcard Collections. The postcards include images of Maine and Massachusetts, and cover a variety of periods, subjects and countries.

8. June 6, 1918, Chicago Tribune war correspondent Floyd Gibbons was on the front line with the Marines at the Battle of Belleau Wood when he was wounded by German machine gun fire. One of the bullets entered his left eye and exited the back of his skull, leaving a gash in his helmet. He never lost consciousness during the three hours he was pinned down as the battle raged on. Gibbons' other adventures and derring-do, like his eyewitness account of the sinking of the Laconia and coverage of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, made him one of the top correspondents of his generation. He went on to a successful career in radio with such shows as "The Headline Hunter." His papers, 190040, include photographs, fan mail and radio scripts.

9. "The New England March King" Robert Browne (R.B.) Hall began his career as a cornet virtuoso at age 16. Born in Bowdoinham, Maine, in 1858, Hall performed with all the major municipal and military bands in New England at the end of the 19th century. He composed more than 60 marches in his career, including one traditionally performed at military funerals. R.B. Hall's scores and sheet music comprise most of the Thomas Bardwell Collection, 1870s1960s. The collection also includes recordings from more than 1,000 bands from Japan, Britain, Switzerland, France, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the U.S.

10. Maxine Elliott is said to have been one of the most photographed and beautiful actors at the turn of the century. The Rockland, Maine, native was the star of the stage and the silver screen. She also owned Maxine Elliott's Theatre on 39th Street, New York City. Her collection, spanning 18461940, includes correspondence, diaries, photos and playbills from her 30-year acting career. Also included is the manuscript of the biography written by her niece, Diana Forbes-Robertson, My Aunt Maxine.

11. The "gems" in the University of Maine's collection of more than 6,000 rare books are just too numerous to mention. They include The Aurelian, a natural history of English insects, published in 1766 with cloth pages and hand-painted illustrations. One of the oldest books dates to the 1500s. Fogler's Maine Collection includes nearly 23,000 volumes on the state's history and literature. Rare books also are found in archives like the Vickery Collection, which includes Scripture Animals; or, Natural History of Living Creatures Named in the Bible, published in Portland, Maine, in 1834, written for youth by the first settled minister of Blue Hill, Maine artist, author and architect Parson Jonathan Fisher (17681847).

by Margaret Nagle
September-October, 2004

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