The Johnson Family of Belfast

Coll. 2781 Johnson family - Edward Johnson Jr. son of Edward Sr. in group photograph 1891 1st from left in back row Box 17 Folder 5

Edward Johnson, Jr., son of Edward, Sr. (first from left in back row) in a group photograph, 1891

By Tessa Surette, MHS volunteer

If Louise Johnson Pratt were alive today she would be relieved to know that her family’s papers and artifacts are finally ready to be shared with the public. The Johnson Family of Belfast collection (Coll. 2781) spans over one hundred years and provides an interesting and entertaining portrait of a wealthy family during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection includes correspondence, photographs, diaries, invoices, financial documents, and small artifacts.

Coll. 2781 Johnson family - Louise Johnson with horse Box 17, Folder 6

Louise Johnson Pratt (1876-1963), who compiled her family’s collection

Edward C. Johnson Sr. (1790-1874) was a wealthy and respected member of Belfast society. He and his wife Georgiana summered in Belfast (their house was known as “The Homestead”) with their four children, Alfred, Ralph, Edward Jr., and Louise. Although they were part-time residents, Edward Sr. and his family were well respected and popular within the community. Some correspondence relates to Edward’s financial life, including his time as executor of his brother’s estate, and as President of Belfast Savings Bank. There are also letters between himself and his children as well as with his brothers and sisters.

Louise Johnson Pratt is the most prominently featured of Edward Sr.’s four children. She was the last survivor of the four siblings and probably acted as the compiler of this collection. In photographs Louise often looks surprisingly modern and her correspondence (which was written almost exclusively before she was married) provides insight into the thoughts and opinions of a young woman at the turn of the 20th century.

Coll. 2781 Johnson family - Alfred Johnson son of Edward Senior 1926 Box 17 Folder 3

Alfred Johnson, son of Edward Senior, in 1926

In a family collection this large there are many entertaining documents and artifacts. Some that stand out are:

  • a letter from one of Louise’s friends in which the friend gives a scathing review of The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, but goes on to praise various books that no one now has ever heard of
  • Louise’s teenage diary in which she drew a doodle that corresponded with each day’s happenings
  • the surprisingly entertaining bank-related correspondence between Edward Sr. and W.H. Quimby, which contained far more gossip than one might expect
  • the birth certificate for one of his children on which Edward Sr. described his occupation as “Gentleman”

For more information see Coll. 2781 in the Minerva online library catalog.

MHS Receives $300,000 Grant to Install Solar Panels on Offsite Collections Management Facility

Solar PanelsMaine Historical Society (MHS) has been awarded a $300,000 grant by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) for the installation of a solar energy system to provide sustainable preservation in a facility housing the rich collections of the Maine Historical Society and the Portland Public Library (PPL). Solar panels on the roof of the building will generate enough electricity to cover the needs of climate-control – an energy-intensive necessity for the long-term preservation of art, artifacts, manuscripts and other materials – as well generate sufficient electricity to subsidize electricity usage at MHS and PPL’s Congress Street campuses.

The grant, specifically designed to help museums and libraries operate more sustainably, is part of $36.6 million given out by NEH to support 212 humanities projects administered by institutions and independent scholars across 42 states; MHS is one of just three Maine organizations awarded funding.

“NEH gives out very few of these grants,” said Steve Bromage, Executive Director of MHS. “We are honored that they recognize the significance of Maine Historical Society’s efforts to incorporate environmental sustainability into how it cares for the collections that document the history of our state.”

In 2014, MHS formed a partnership with PPL to jointly purchase a 35,500 square foot former warehouse at 1000 Riverside Street in Portland and develop it into a state-of-the-art collections management facility. In addition to providing much-needed storage for MHS’s growing collections, the facility allows for the freeing of nearly 18,000 square feet of space at the MHS campus on Congress Street, and increases the organization’s ability to engage and serve the people of Portland and communities throughout Maine with expanded programs, services and outreach.

“I’m thrilled that this federal investment will help one of Maine’s oldest institutions enlist the latest green technology to preserve important pieces of Maine’s history,” said Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree, a member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, which oversees NEH funding. “I applaud Maine Historical Society and the Portland Public Library for joining forces to make this possible. In receiving funding through a very competitive program like this, their collaboration is a great example of what multiple organizations can achieve by working together.”

Visit NEH online for more information about the grant awards.

Lost Skills, Found!

Our Lost Skills summer workshop series highlighting traditional crafts was a hit! Including Knot Tying, Basket Making, Calligraphy, and Drying and Using Herbs and Flowers, each workshop filled quickly and was full of energy. Attendees had fun learning a traditional skill, socializing with each other, and enjoying food and drink. See photos from the workshops below:

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MHS Teacher Workshops in Portland & Bangor

Maine Historical Society hosted teacher workshops on August 4 in Portland and August 6 in Bangor as part of a grant from the Library of Congress to create lesson plans pairing Maine Memory Network primary sources with items on the LOC’s digital museum, American Memory. The workshops, which were open to a total of 50 teachers, were completely reserved out. The Portland session was held at MHS, and the Bangor session was graciously hosted by the William S. Cohen Middle School.


Maine Historical Society, Portland

In addition to presentations by MHS Manager of Education Kathleen Neumann, each group heard from a veteran Maine Memory teacher on the benefits of using primary sources in the classroom, as well from Maine Department of Education Social Studies Specialist Kristie Littlefield.


William S. Cohen Middle School, Bangor

Nearly 40 of the 50 attendees have responded to a survey, offering high marks and glowing comments about the content-rich day and the practical application for the classroom. One teacher wrote, “Thank you for your time and effort in planning today’s workshop. I can’t wait to start delving into [this] in greater detail. I’m so excited. I’ve emailed the History department head to put me on the  beginning of school agenda to share what I’ve learned.”

Five case study teachers will be chosen via a competitive application process to develop their own lesson plans and be observed throughout the academic year by Kathleen. Those plans will eventually end up on Maine Memory.

Junior Docents Delight with Heartfelt House Tours

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At Maine Historical Society, we like to think that every tour of the Wadsworth-Longfellow House is special, and we know that a large part of what makes them special is the dedication and knowledge of our volunteer docents. On July 10, MHS’s newest crop of volunteer docents had the chance to ply their newly acquired tour-guiding skills for the very first time, delighting the visiting public with an open-house style tour of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s childhood home from a perspective the poet would have surely appreciated: a youthful one!

The hosts of the open house that day were fourth and fifth grade Portland-area students who had just completed MHS’s third annual Junior Docent Camp. Campers spent a week learning not only about the Longfellow family, their home, and Henry’s poetry, but also about what life was like for kids in the 19th century, the best practices for leading public tours, and about the work of history museums.

The camp was a unique opportunity for kids to interact with museum staff and collections in ways that are not often available to history buffs who are so young. Collections Manager Holly Hurd-Forsyth showed the campers objects from the collection, explaining how to handle historic artifacts and how they can be read just like books as a way to learn about the past. Director of Library Services Jamie Rice shared documents associated with the Wadsworth and Longfellow families and provided campers with a behind the scenes tour of the Brown Research Library.

Other popular activities included spirited rounds of “games of graces,” making butter, exploring the Portland Farmer’s Market, and even dipping candles. After escorting an impressive 59 visitors through the Wadsworth-Longfellow House in just two hours, the campers and their families celebrated their graduation from the program with a small ceremony in the Longfellow Garden.

For inquiries about the 2015 Junior Docent Camp, contact Kathleen Neumann at 207-774-1822 ext. 214, or

Highlights From Our 193rd Annual Meeting

MHS 193rd Annual Meeting-34

Ellsworth Brown delivers the keynote at Maine Historical Society’s 193rd Annual Meeting

On Saturday, June 6 we convened in the Brown Library Reading Room for the 193rd Maine Historical Society Annual Meeting.

Ellsworth H. Brown, Ph.D — Director of the Wisconsin Historical Society — delivered an engaging keynote address to our crowd of 80. Brown discussed how history shapes place and region, entertaining the audience with anecdotes and insights. “Stories are how humankind makes sense of itself,” said Brown. “We are society’s memory,” he later noted regarding the role of museums and historical societies. And on the prevalence of digital information today, Brown made a provoking declaration: “The digital world is a real world. It’s not different; it’s real.”

MHS 193rd Annual Meeting-39

Ellsworth Brown & Steve Bromage

Prior to Brown’s speech, MHS Executive Director Steve Bromage bestowed awards upon three prominent individuals in the MHS network:

  • Elizabeth Ring Service Award: Aynne Doil, Events Chair
  • Neal W. Allen, Jr. History Award: Candace Kanes, Curator, Maine Memory Network
  • Trustee Recognition Award: Theodore B. Oldham
MHS 193rd Annual Meeting-10

Steve Bromage & Aynne Doil

MHS 193rd Annual Meeting-14

Steve Bromage & Candace Kanes

MHS 193rd Annual Meeting-17

Theodore B. Oldham & Steve Bromage

Additionally, four new Trustees were welcomed to the Board:

  • Penelope Carson
  • Nancy Cline
  • Jan Eakins
  • Tobey Scott

To round out the day, participants were led on a special tour of our collections storage featuring an up-close look at some of our seldom-seen treasures; and a chance to learn how our new offsite Collections Management Center — developed in partnership with Portland Public Library — is helping to shape MHS’s future.

Development, Conflict, and Community in Casco Bay

By Lucinda Gannon, MHS volunteer

Despite contents nearly a century apart in time, two newly processed collections at MHS nevertheless evidence strong commonalities of life on the Casco Bay islands. The larger of the two contains many of the historical records of the Casco Bay Island Development Association, which first became active on Peaks Island in the mid-1950s. The other collection contains a broad array of late nineteenth century material relating to Cushing Island. Each reflects strong efforts to “develop” the islands, even stronger debate about what “development” means, and both vividly illustrate some of the challenges not only of development, but also of daily life in Casco Bay.

CBIDA map Diamond Cove

CBIDA map of Diamond Cove (click to enlarge)

It’s difficult to know exactly what the founding members of the Casco Bay Island Development Association (CBIDA) meant when they named their organization in 1959. The documents clearly reflect a “can do” spirit and post-World War II optimism and quest for improvement. The early efforts of the organization were directed at basic matters such as tearing down dilapidated buildings, rebuilding piers, and improving ferry service and fire protection. There was talk of promoting “island development” and tourism. Simultaneously, the large tracts of land held by the U. S. government on Peaks, Long, and Great Diamond were offered for sale by the General Services Administration (GSA) and purchased by private individuals.

The CBIDA came to include representatives from most of the Casco Bay islands. The first large scale initiative of the CBIDA was the financing and purchase of that former government land on Peaks Island. The original ambitious plan, called Project Oceanside and spearheaded in large part by Bea Chapman of Peaks, included plans for an international center. While that never came to pass, the project mutated over time and came to include the development of the “Back Shore”, infrastructure improvements on Peaks, and the donation of conserved land on the island.

By the late 1960s the records start to reflect an increased concern for the impact of development on Casco Bay and its waters. In the 1970s the Casco Bay Lines’ strikes, service, and bankruptcy were critical issues for all islanders. The CBIDA was the lead player in obtaining service improvements, including the installation of radar on vessels, and, ultimately, in the formation of the Casco Bay Island Transportation District, which now serves the islands. Together with city and state officials, CBIDA was a key player in the redevelopment of Commercial Street, including the new ferry terminal and parking garage, and in boosting island tourism.

Portland’s newly proposed island zoning districts in the 1980s, together with the proposed development of Fort McKinley, were a watershed moment for the CBIDA, and it mounted a vigorous, time-consuming, and expensive challenge against what it saw as overdevelopment of the islands, especially Great Diamond Island. While the organization in partnership with the Island Institute and Audubon Society, among others, was able to limit some of the original plans of the development, especially its size and scope, in general it was the feeling of the CBIDA that the “development” of the islands had gone too far. The efforts of the organization since then have largely focused on the preservation of the island communities and environment, rather than on “development.”

Plan of Cushings Island, ca. 1888 | Collections of Maine Historical Society (MMN #23340)

The second newly processed collection pertains to Cushing Island and contains late 19th century ledgers from the Ottawa House, with a wealth of social and economic data from the period. Most of the records are from the time of Francis Cushing, who, with Frederick Law Olmsted developed the plan for the island. A copy of the plan (pictured, right) is in the collection, and is also available on the Maine Memory Network. The boom and bust economy of the 1890s, together with the high costs and risks of development, are evidenced in Francis Cushing’s lawsuit against the Cushing’s Island Hotel and Transportation Company, in which he alleged that Casco National Bank and others fraudulently obtained stock in and control of the Cushing’s Island Hotel and Transportation Company. Following the fire of 1888 he also complained bitterly to his business partners about their failure to insure the hotel. Finally , the collection contains correspondence from Francis Cushing regarding the potential sale of some of Cushing Island to the U.S. government in the 1890s, to become Fort Levett, and leading to one of the key unifying and defining elements of many of the Casco Bay islands, the extensive military presence there dating from about 1890.

For more information, see Coll. 2724 for the Casco Bay Island Development Association records, and Coll. 2775 for the Cushing Island collection, in the Brown Library Minerva catalog.