MACHIAS, Maine — Anyone who needs to know anything about the history of Machias or of its families sooner or later ends up on Valdine Atwood’s doorstep.
“The library, the town office, the courthouse — they all send people to me,” Atwood said this week. “I don’t know a lot of people around here,” she joked, “but I sure know the dead ones.”
As the area’s leading genealogist and historian, Atwood, 78, recently was recognized by the Maine Genealogical Society for what she is — a one-woman treasure-trove of the shiretown’s history.
She can point to the exact spot off Elm Street where the residents of Machias fought the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War in 1775. She can put to rest rumors about blood on the floor of the historic Burnham Tavern.
She seemingly knows the location and the history of every mill, every factory, every store, schoolhouse and church, and possibly every family that called Machias home.
She has amassed a collection of papers, documents and volumes greater than the town library’s which she calls her “60 linear feet of books,” including 17 file drawers full of research.
She can sit for hours retelling the stories of the rough men who traveled from Scarborough to escape a drought and forest fires to found Machias.
She has taken schoolchildren on historical tours of Machias and adults on tours of local cemeteries; even the town manager collects information from Atwood when submitting grant applications that must contain historical data.
But when bestowed with the Award of Excellence in Genealogical Service last month by the Maine Genealogical Society, Atwood was uncharacteristically speechless. After all, she said this week, the award recognized not only her own life work, but also her mother’s.
Here are a few of Atwood’s accomplishments noted by the MGS: For 38 years, Valdine Atwood was chairman of the committee that took care of Burnham Tavern; she is a member of the Machias, Machiasport, Pembroke and Dennysville historical societies; in 1999 she was appointed by the Washington County commissioners to the county’s Archives Preservation Committee, which has been responsible for inventorying 150,000 pieces of paper and records, as well as preserving the largest collection of bound newspapers in Maine, all stored at the Washington County Courthouse; she has been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution for 55 years (Machias’ DAR chapter is the second-largest in the state) and has served in a wide range of state and regional positions for DAR activities.
All of this is even more remarkable because Atwood isn’t from Machias. She was born and raised in the Catskill Mountains of New York.
“But I’ve always been interested in history,” she said. “By doing research on people, this is how we learn about history. It puts the flesh on them.
“There are people who have lived here all their lives and have never been inside the Burnham Tavern,” she said, referring to the landmark across the street from her home. “Isn’t that an awful shame?” she said.
It was there in the tavern —one of only 21 homes the federal government has designated as significant to the American Revolution — that a small group of lumberjacks and storekeepers, energized by the recent Battle of Lexington, carried the mortally wounded captain of the British ship Margaretta, which they had captured, and laid him across two wooden chests.
Atwood said the chests, which are housed in the tavern, still bear the bloodstains — not, as rumor has it, the tavern floor.
The tavern now functions as a museum.
“If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t know who you are,” Atwood said. “You are a part of all those sets of grandparents that came before you.”
Her hobby, picked up by watching her mother research the family roots, has grown beyond genealogy to encompass history.
“Valdine Chambers Atwood has long been recognized as the authority on the history and genealogy of the families of the Machias area specifically, and Washington County generally,” the MGS citation read.
Atwood said she doesn’t see herself as a Washington County treasure, but rather a resource to be used by others.
“I love sharing this information,” she said. “I could talk about the local history all day.”
Atwood said she debated long and hard about what will happen to her massive, important collection of books and documents.
“After much consideration, I have willed it to the University of Maine at Machias’ history department,” she said. “It is a part of the college’s long-term vision to set up a Washington County history center.”