Volunteers preserve 150,000 historic court documents

Posted Dec. 07, 2009, at 10:45 p.m.
Val Atwood
BANGOR DAILY NEWS FILE PHOTO BY
Val Atwood

MACHIAS, Maine — It was a daunting task. One hundred boxes of unnamed materials and documents found in the attic, crawl spaces and closets of the Washington County Courthouse needed to be preserved.

Five years later, a team of volunteers, using grants and small county appropriations, have inventoried, flattened, placed in numbered acid-free file folders, photographed and compiled on CD some 150,000 documents, including transactions and data from as far back as 1791.

The first completed CD inventory was presented to the county commissioners last week.

Along the way, more than 500 maps were discovered, many in a shed in the courthouse parking lot, where they were headed to the dump, and those too are being inventoried.

“The Archives Committee was established by the county commissioners back in 1999,” local historian Valdine Atwood said. “Ten years ago, we had no idea we would still be at it.”

The committee originally was charged with preserving the county’s newspaper collection, which consists of 600 bound volumes.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Atwood said. “We consulted with many experts and ended up microfilming the newspapers, mostly local papers. We purchased a microfilm reader and printer. So far we have about half of the newspapers done. It’s a continuing process since every week new local papers are printed.”

Atwood said the newspapers are local weeklies, with the oldest being an 1818 copy of the Eastport Sentinel. “Some of the papers are just two pages and they all contain a lot of political articles,” she said.

It was while the committee worked on the newspapers that county employees kept telling them there were boxes of documents in the attic of the old law library.

“We found them everywhere, in the attic, in an attic to the attic, in the eaves, in closets,” she said.

Some of the papers were in poor shape so the decision was made to immediately begin saving them and suspend the work on the newspapers.

Atwood said the work took on new meaning and became very exciting when one of the documents found was a deposition given in 1839 by then-80-year-old Hannah Watts Weston. In the deposition, Weston tells of her run carrying gunpowder with her sister-in-law Rebecca Weston through the woods between Jonesboro and Machias on June 12, 1775. Hannah Weston was 17 years old and had been married for almost a year.

The gunpowder was intended to help Machias residents capture the British vessel Margaretta, in what was the first naval battle of the American Revolution.

“We carr [sic] between 30 to 40 pounds of powder and ball. Get halfway there and Rebecca gave up and I took her load,” the document states.

All of the documentation work was done on county funding of $5,800 a year along with several historical preservation grants.

“All of the documents are numbered with a directory in each box,” Atwood said. “Each box is numbered, and there is the CD that will be accessible at the Porter Memorial Library in Machias, the University of Maine at Machias, Calais Free Library, Peavey Memorial Library in Eastport, Bangor Public Library, State of Maine Archives in Augusta and the Maine Historical Society in Portland.”

Copies of the inventory CD are available for $10 sent to the Washington County Probate Office, 85 Court St., P.O. Box 297, Machias 04654.

Researchers can make an appointment two weeks in advance and up to six boxes may be requested at one sitting.

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