Time running out for Gorham history

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Brenda Caldwell, executive secretary and archivist at Gorham Historical Society, works Tuesday in its School Street building at the desk used in the Statehouse by Gov. Frederick Robie, Gorham's native son who became governor in 1883. Caldwell, a former chairwoman of the Town Council, is leading an effort to keep the society from collapsing.

With leadership posts unfilled and sagging attendance at meetings, the Gorham Historical Society teeters on the edge of disbanding.

The society doesn’t have a president, vice president or recording secretary. Brenda Caldwell, executive secretary and archivist, and a few core members are trying to breathe new life into it.

“We don’t want the historical society to fold,” said Caldwell, a former chairwoman of the Town Council and retired town clerk.

So, Caldwell will send a letter next month to members announcing a meeting for Monday, Sept. 26, at 4 p.m., at the Gorham Municipal Center, 75 South St.

“We’re going to try for officers that night,” Caldwell said Tuesday at the society’s 28 School St. headquarters and archives building, which it leases from the town.

Membership at that meeting will determine whether the society survives.

“It’s the membership’s decision to make,” she said.

If the society folds, the disposition of its assets, which includes a farm in White Rock that James Eddy bequeathed to the society several years ago, is unclear. Material housed in the society’s archives would need storage.

“It would be a disaster for me to pack it up,” Caldwell said.

The Gorham Historical Society, according to its records, was hatched in 1968 by a group led by Dr. Robert York, state historian, in meetings held at Gorham State Teachers College, the forerunner of the University of Southern Maine. The late Calvin Hamblen was elected the society’s first president. In the mid-1970s, the town moved its offices from 28 School St. into a then-new municipal center at 270 Main St., and the historical society leased the 171-year old brick building from the town.

The society’s building houses genealogical records, documents, volumes of books, scrapbooks, town reports, school yearbooks and files with histories of Gorham people and landmarks. Two cherished possessions are an Abraham Lincoln letter and a desk that was used by Frederick Robie, the Gorham native who became the 39th Maine governor in 1883.

The historical society recently has struggled without key leaders as two past presidents resigned. One, Ronald Shepard, a town councilor, said Wednesday he stepped down because of a time factor. Shepard has agreed to officiate the September meeting.

The most recent president to resign was the late Rev. Norman Rust. George Watson, an archivist for many years, also resigned.

A society member, Bob Parsons, said Wednesday that it’ll be “very tough” to find a new president and vice president. Parsons said his wife, Elizabeth Parsons, has been the treasurer for 10 years and she had only agreed to accept that position for a short time.

Caldwell said the society has 100 people on its membership roll, but that number is “sliding” each year.

Mike Sanphy, president of Westbrook Historical Society and a Westbrook city councilor, said Wednesday that his group has about 127 members and has active participation. Sanphy suggested Gorham historians extend programs to senior housing and civic groups like Rotary, besides seeking corporate sponsorships.

“We do programs and reach out to people,” Sanphy said.

Shepard, too, hopes the Gorham Historical Society could expand its programs.

“We’d like to get some young folks to come in,” he said.

Suzanne Phillips, a Gorham School Committee member, said at age 40 she’s the youngest member of the historical society. Phillips planned to meet Wednesday evening, after the American Journal deadline this week, with Caldwell to discuss ideas to bolster community interest.

Phillips said she would suggest organizing a  historic display at the weekly farmers market and historical tours involving children.

“There needs to be a drive for younger members,” Phillips said.

Caldwell said attendance at the two most recent society monthly meetings had attracted only six and nine people. Dues, at $10, represent the society’s only income.

Parsons, relaying input from his wife, said the society has a little under $10,000 in its operating fund and that is “dropping fast.”

“We pay our own way here,” Caldwell said, dispelling a rumor that taxpayers are subsidizing the society. “It doesn’t cost the town a thing.”

The society pays for expenses at the building, including heat, electricity, telephone and water. During winter months, the two-story building is heated to 55 degrees and a dehumidifier was running there this week.

The town did put a new roof on the building a few years ago. Caldwell said Portland Water District this year charged more than $500 to turn on water for the building.

The toilet works, but the sink is not operative.

Up until this year, the society’s building had been open one day each week, April to October, for researchers. Now, it’s closed except by appointment, but Caldwell goes there regularly to handle telephone requests.

Phillips said the society needs volunteers and she’ll help Caldwell staff the archives.

“It can’t go away,” Phillips said about the society.

If it does, Shepard said, “There would be a lot of ramifications.”

 

A CLOSER LOOK

The Gorham Historical Society will meet Monday, Sept. 26, at 4 p.m., in the Gorham Municipal Center, 75 South St. The society’s phone number is 839-4700 and the website is www.gorhamhistorical.com.

Brenda Caldwell, executive secretary and archivist at Gorham Historical Society, works Tuesday in its School Street building at the desk used in the Statehouse by Gov. Frederick Robie, Gorham’s native son who became governor in 1883. Caldwell, a former chairwoman of the Town Council, is leading an effort to keep the society from collapsing.

Gorham Historical Society, 28 School St.

 

Brenda Caldwell