BINGHAM, Maine — Connecting with history is more than a familiarity with names, dates and events.
Joyce Penich, a volunteer at the just-opened Old Canada Road Historical Society headquarters, moved to Bingham nine years ago after a lifetime of city living in Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The adjustment to small-town life wasn’t without its challenges; Penich and her husband, not sure they wanted to stay in the area, put their home on the market three different times.
But when Penich began helping the historical society catalog its artifacts and historical documents, she realized what a special place Maine’s Upper Kennebec River Valley is and always has been.
“I’m not from here, and I wish I was,” she said. “When you read about all these people and how dedicated they were to this community, it’s very touching. I’ve decided that I never want to leave this place.”
Her house, she said, is off the market for good.
The Old Canada Road exists today only in history pages and as a federally designated historic thoroughfare. Following roughly the path of the Kennebec River — and what today is known as U.S. Route 201 — the Old Canada Road was once part of a thriving commercial route between Quebec and Boston. From Native Ameri-cans migrating centuries ago to Benedict Arnold’s failed 1775 quest to capture Quebec, the thoroughfare has a rich history of spreading culture and commerce.
The Old Canada Road Historical Society, which formed several years ago, purchased an ornate Victorian house at 16 Sidney St. in Bingham. After months of upgrades to the house’s electrical and heating systems, the society opened its doors to the public two months ago. Marilyn Sterling-Gondek, a founding member of the so-ciety’s board of directors, said visitors are welcome, though the museum is a work in progress.
“We’ve had kind of a quiet opening,” she said. “We still have a lot of stuff coming in faster than we can deal with it.”
In addition to large personal collections owned by Sterling-Gondek and others, such as Jon Hall of Portland, people with connections to the area have provided a steady stream of artifacts and documents from virtually every conceivable facet of life in the Upper Kennebec Valley. On one table are photographs of classrooms full of schoolchildren, all formally dressed and separated by gender. In a cabinet next to an antique spinning mill are trinkets from Bingham’s centennial almost 100 years ago and a roll of movie theater tickets that were never sold.
Tucked into closets and upstairs rooms are boxes and stacks and cabinets full of documents ranging from records of log floes on the Kennebec River to lists of investors who gave $5 each in 1835 to build the still-standing Bingham Free Meeting House. Though the only thing uniting the items is their connection to the Old Can-ada Road, they tell a vivid story of community and progress.
In a letter from the 1800s — one of Sterling-Gondek’s favorites — an impoverished homeowner writes to the Maine Legislature to describe a steady stream of even poorer immigrants from Quebec.
“It described how the immigrants were coming through with no clothes and no food,” said Sterling-Gondek. “It was so sad because they were trying to care for one another even though they didn’t really have the means.”
Board of directors president Julie Richard said Friday that she sees a common theme — almost like a shared secret — among the people who have called the Old Canada Road home.
“They weren’t just brilliant; they were brilliant enough to want to be here,” she said. “We forget what kinds of people lived before us. They loved this area and have made a living and helped each other here for a long time. It’s a real vote of confidence for communities.”
The Old Canada Road Historical Society, at 16 Sidney St. in Bingham, is open 1-5 p.m. Fridays and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. Beginning at 10 a.m. Nov. 6, the society will be host to a Genealogy Club that will meet periodically. For information or to donate artifacts, money or services, call the society at 672-3440.