The Sanctity of Archives

By Steve Bromage, MHS Executive Director

You may have heard about a controversy that has emerged this week surrounding the National Archives and Records Administration: NARA, which refers to itself as the “country’s record keeper,” has been taken to task for altering historic images used to promote its exhibit celebrating the centennial of the women’s suffrage movement. Images of the 2017 Women’s March were blurred to obscure references to “Trump” and female anatomy, drawing criticism from historians, the museum field, and many others (including those who participated in the March).

You can read about the controversy in this New York Times article.

History is messy and complex (and wonderful and an incredibly important resource). This controversy strikes a chord: it raises questions about how institutions like Maine Historical Society go about our work at a time when the concepts of “facts, ” “knowledge,” and “truth” are under siege.

At MHS, our mission is to preserve and share Maine’s story. Central to our work is caring for and providing access to documents and other historical items that serve as the foundation of the historical record. We strive to provide broad access to our collections and work closely with partners throughout the state to develop exhibits, public programs, publications, and online resources that provide context for issues that Mainers are focused on today.

A core tenet articulated in our strategic plan states that MHS is “committed to rigorous scholarship, freedom of inquiry, confronting all aspects of the historical record, and advocates the use of history to support planning for the future.” We take this very seriously.

This means that we are meticulous in how we approach, think about, and present the historical record: we do not alter images, manipulate them for effect, sanitize them, or attempt to put aspects of Maine’s story in a more favorable light.

Our staff engages in constant discussion internally and with partners throughout Maine to identify topics of interest and relevance to the community, to include diverse perspectives, and to present multiple viewpoints.

There are inherent biases in all history—based on what records survive, what materials have been valued and collected, the era in which the history is written, and the background and perspective of the historian and institution. We work hard to identify, acknowledge, and address those biases.

I could cite many examples of MHS’s work in recent years that reflect these commitments: exhibitions on immigration in Maine, the paper industry, and Maine’s food culture and economy.

Our current exhibition, Holding Up the Sky, offers a case in point. As the State of Maine commemorates its Bicentennial this year, we felt that it was essential to first place 200 years of Statehood into the context of 13,000 years of Maine history. The exhibition explores the experience and leadership of the Wabanaki, Maine’s first people, who have lived here and been stewards of the place we now know as Maine for thousands of years.

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The exhibit revisits historic documents, like treaties, from the Wabanaki perspective and acknowledges that early Maine leaders, like the Longfellow family (near and dear to MHS), acted in deeply disturbing ways (e.g. by offering scalping bounties). The story is complex, tragic, moving, inspiring, and many other things. It is a story that people who care about Maine need to know, good and bad. Information, awareness, and open dialog is the foundation for moving forward together on this and every other topic of contemporary interest and concern.

I hope you’ll have the chance to visit Holding Up the Sky before it closes on February 1.

Exhibitions are one important way for the public to encounter and explore history. Each story, fact, object, label, panel, and graphic plays a role in establishing knowledge, understanding, and trust. It is essential that each is presented with honesty, accuracy, and transparency.

We are fortunate: Maine has an incredible historical community. Scholars, professors, graduate students, and local historians are dedicated to these principles, as are museums, archives, local historical societies, libraries, and many other organizations throughout the state.

These individuals and institutions are an invaluable resource and source of information. You can be confident in their vigilance and commitment to providing information that supports civic dialog.

We deeply appreciate the support of MHS members and donors who make this work possible.

Chansonetta Stanley Emmons Photograph Collection

By Judith Wentzell, MHS Volunteer

Chansonetta Stanley Emmons (left) sits next to her daughter Dorothy Stanley Emmons, Kingfield, Maine 1907. Photographic print by the artist.  MMN #26179.

What good fortune I have, as a part-time volunteer in the Brown Research Library at Maine Historical Society, to prepare the photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons for all to see on Maine Memory Network.  Born in Kingfield, Maine in 1858, Chansonetta was an adventurous woman of the late 19th and early 20th century with stamina, perseverance, skill, a point of view, and an artist’s eye.

Her surviving photographs, taken primarily between 1900 and 1930, range from staged scenes with friends and relatives reflecting an earlier lifestyle to photographs taken in Europe and Canada. There are scenes of Maine farmers at work, portraits of homes and villages in rural Maine, trips to coastal towns in New England and a set of well over 100 hand-colored glass lantern slides. These were taken in 1926 on a trip to South Carolina where she photographed Charleston architecture, public gardens, and tenant farmers. Finding a very few photographs of a trip she took to Colorado is a reminder that we know many of her photographs were destroyed.

Hazel True feeding the hens, New Portland, ca. 1910. Handcolored lantern slide by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102400

The collection is in a number of formats.  There are 5”x 7” glass plate negatives, prints developed on Velox paper, mounted prints, and the lantern slides. Some images were taken with a roll film camera. Regardless of format, Chansonetta was adept at standing in just the right place to take a photograph. Her images are clear and sensitive to her subjects.  She had no artificial light source, so therefore became skilled in determining exposure with only natural light. She developed and processed all her work.

Uncle Tristam at the well, Kingfield, ca. 1900 by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102516

Chansonetta (as I am on a first-name basis with her after these many months) was born to a farm family, the only daughter of seven children. Her twin brothers Freelan Oscar and Francis Edgar went on to considerable success as inventors of the Stanley Dry Plate photographic process and the Stanley Steamer automobile.  From them she was introduced to photography.

However, she had already started on her path for a career in the arts while attending Western State Normal School in Farmington. She enrolled planning to become a teacher and graduated having decided to be artist.  Chansonetta moved to Boston to further her career.  In 1887 she was married. Her daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1891. It was after the death of her husband seven years later that Chansonetta focused more on photography and in 1904 bought her Century camera.  She was fortunate to have brothers who could support her in a comfortable manner for the rest of her life as they provided her with an apartment and automobiles. She did not have to work although she earned some income from her photography.

A cooling draft, ca. 1910. Handcolored lantern slide by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102407

Chansonetta had a lifelong partner in her travels with her daughter, Dorothy, who grew into the role of assistant and chauffeur.  They traveled together to all the locations of her photographs including almost every summer back to friends and family in Kingfield.  When Chansonetta died in 1937, Dorothy kept close watch on her mother’s legacy.

Scituate at high tide, Scituate, Massachusetts, ca.1910 by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102606

I have seen and processed over 500 photographs, with perhaps that same number to go.  This may not seem like many in an age of digital cameras.  Now the average person has a small camera or a cell phone. There is no need to purchase film or have film processed and printed.  Chansonetta lugged around a heavy view camera with tripod and a glass plate for most every photograph she took.  Wearing dresses of the time, she must have had some hiking skills to walk to many of her locations!

Little red school house, Stowe, Vermont, ca. 1910 by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102455

Along with discovering beautiful and surprising images as I open each envelope, last summer I walked in the photographer’s footsteps at Wohelo Camps on the shores of Sebago Lake.  In the camp records Mrs. Chansonetta Emmons and Dorothy Emmons are listed as being campers for the 1918 season.

Not all Chansonetta’s photographs are precisely captioned. Luckily, a few photographs of a dramatic performance in a woodsy area and photographs of women lounging on the rocky shore of a lake were labelled “Wohelo.” A brief search on the Internet led me to Mark Van Winkle, the fourth-generation owner/director of this iconic and historic Maine camp for girls. On a glorious summer day in July of 2018, I was given not only a tour and a delicious lunch with campers but also a chance to view hundreds of Chansonetta’s glass plate and celluloid negatives, all taken at the camp between 1918 and 1923.  Perhaps she was a friend of the illustrious founders/owners, Dr. Luther and Charlotte Gulick or perhaps it was employment – we do not know.

Sebago Wohelo, Raymond, ca. 1918. Handcolored lantern slide by Chansonetta Stanley Emmons. MMN #102381

Most of what we do know now about Chansonetta comes from Marius B. Peladeau, who has been a force in Maine art and historic circles for many years. It was Peladeau who purchased the collection of Chansonetta’s photographs, cataloged them and assured that they ultimately went to the Stanley Museum.  It is this collection that now finds a home for safe keeping at the Maine Historical Society. In 1977 Peladeau published “Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858 – 1937.”  I and many others first learned about her from this book as well as from exhibits held at the same time.

My personal adventure with Chansonetta is not soon to end – there are still many boxes to open, explore, and catalog.  I look forward to seeing lives and locales she captured that are now lost to us a century later.  I hope my work with her photographs will play at least a small role in bringing a widespread appreciation and enjoyment of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons and her work.

For more of her photographs, be sure to browse now and periodically on Maine Memory Network. More photographs will continually be added to the database.

Spite House in Rockport Maine: Garden Papers and Correspondence

By Steven Deschenes, MHS Volunteer

Garden lilies: L. testaceum, L. washingtonianum, L. humboldtii, and more – they came by the dozens from across North America, and they came to a small corner of mid-coast Maine.

Their destination? The gardens of the Spite House in Rockport, Maine.

Despite some plants having come thousands of miles their travels are not nearly as impressive as that of the Spite House itself. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974, the Spite House owes its existence to a family dispute from the early 19th century.

When Captain Thomas McCobb returned from a long voyage at sea, he discovered that his relatives had broken his father’s will and moved into the fine house his father had built in Phippsburg. In retaliation, or “spite,” he had an even more ornate home built strikingly close to his father’s usurped house.

The house was completed in 1806. By the early 20th century the house had seen better times and, in 1925, it was bought by Mr. and Mrs. Donald D. Dodge.

Shortly after purchasing the home, Mr. Dodge arranged for it to be moved (completely intact) from Phippsburg to Deadman’s Point in Rockport. The house was braced, lifted onto a barge, and shipped 85 miles to its present location. Once safely back on dry land, two more wings were built.

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The following year, Mr. Dodge had gardens installed according to a design by the landscape architect Robert Wheelwright. Now, thanks to a recent donation to the Maine Historical Society, we know just what bloomed!

Relatives of Mr. Dodge donated his documents pertaining to the gardens of the Spite House to the Maine Historical Society. Among the papers are purchase orders, receipts, plant lists, notes on plant care and propagation, catalogs, and letters.

Looking through the correspondence with over half a dozen plant nurseries (most of which appear to no longer exist), you discover the wide variety of lilies, roses, and alpine plants ordered and planted by Mr. Dodge and his gardener, Henry B. Williams, during the 1950’s. Mr. Dodge kept carbon copies of his letters detailing their successes and failures. It’s clear that he was an avid gardener with a keen interest in learning all he could about lily propagation.

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Reviewing the papers, you’re regaled with their struggles to control a common plant disease, Botrytis, that plagued particular species, especially during wet and damp periods of weather. Controlling the local woodcock population also took precedence, as it’s assumed the gamebirds – primarily an insect eating species – rooted around in the flower beds, disturbing young seedlings and causing general havoc to the flower beds.

Here’s a passage from a letter addressed to A.D. Rothman of Strawberry Hill Nurseries, dated October 15th, 1954:

I am having a wonderful time in my garden now preparing the planting arrangements for these lilies and planning where to put them. You can be assured they will have every care possible. They are planted amongst shrubs – Azaleas, Kalmia, Rhododendron, Mahonia, Bayberry – but I have learned to give them plenty of room and I have also learned to restrict the roots of the Mahonias and Bayberries by putting in sheets of zinc to give the lilies a head start. The Kalmias and Rhododendron are no problem and the same applies to most Azaleas but some of the Azaleas do have runners. However, I am having a hard time keeping up with my woodcock shooting and getting the lilies planted too!

By all appearances, the time period covered in the collection marked one of the high points in the history of the Spite House Gardens. While under the care of Mr. Williams, the gardens underwent an extensive expansion with a lily and wildflower garden planted in the woods south of the house, installations of a rock garden, an enclosed rose garden, island gardens in the lawns surrounding the property, and the construction of a greenhouse.

All in all, the collection provides a glimpse into what it took to plan, execute, and nurture flower gardens on the coast of Maine nearly 70 years ago!