Finding history in a rocking chair

Posted March 31, 2011, at 8:08 p.m.

“OK. Today is the day I get rid of that old rocking chair,” I told myself one crisp, sunny morning near the end of March.

A month ago I had moved the relic from the bedroom to the center of the kitchen, hoping I would be forced to decide its fate by stumbling around it. Instead, I moved it to a corner of the dining room, less an obstacle, but still out of place. There it sat until, anticipating house guests, my resolve to give it a new home resurfaced.

I bought it years ago at Caribou’s famed Second Hand Rose, a consignment shop started by Dot McDuffie in 1987 that became a fixture in the center of town. Even among the fairly eclectic furnishings of my house, the ornate Victorian rocker was an anomaly, and its broken arm swung away from the screw that was supposed to attach it to the chair’s back.

My purchase was an act of historic preservation. Dot knew my weakness. She would call me when she acquired an item significant in the history of Caribou. The first time, she had a desk and chair from the Maine Senate that were given to former Maine Sen. Ezra James Briggs when the Senate chamber was refurnished.

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“I just know it will go downstate,” she said, recalling sharp-eyed dealers who snatched up antiques they spotted on visits to her store. “These pieces should stay in Caribou. Don’t you think?” Of course, I agreed, and moved the mahogany desk and matching chair with green velvet upholstery into my bedroom.

The rocking chair had belonged to another Caribou legislator, Philip Peterson, who, along with Briggs, was instrumental in restoring Atlantic salmon to the Aroostook River by advocating legislation to improve water quality during the 1960s.

I had been able to return the Briggs furniture to the family, but that option did not exist for the Peterson rocker. I tried to give it back to the new owner of Second Hand Rose.

“If it is broken, I can’t sell it,” she said. So it remained in my dining room.

My difficulty in disposing of this chair is a symptom of a general inability to part with old things. It is a fault I am trying to correct, so I loaded the chair into the back of my station wagon and headed for Catholic Charities.

How would anyone buying the chair appreciate its significance or care that it had been owned by a Caribou legislator, I wondered as I neared my destination. Whoever gets this rocker needs to know about Phil Peterson and what he did for Caribou and Maine. Catholic Charities is a wonderful place to recycle old things, but this time it seemed like an end to a memory. I drove right by and home again with the chair in the back of the car.

I called Dot McDuffie for the name of someone in the Caribou Historical Society who might have an interest in my treasure.

“I think you should talk to Joe Bouchard,” she was quick to respond. So I called Joe, explained my situation and offered to drive the chair over to his home so he could have a look.

“Yes, it’s a nice old chair,” he agreed, when I lifted the hatch. “You know, there is someone at the museum right now who makes decisions about these things. Why don’t you drive out there, and maybe they will take if off your hands.”

I was exuberant. And I was welcomed warmly as I entered the museum announcing, “I come bearing an historic chair.” And, yes, Dennis Harris and Dick Cilley knew of Phil Peterson, as well as Jim Briggs.

“We have a fish caught by Briggs right here,” Harris said, leading me to a mounted Atlantic salmon.

I carted the chair up the ramp into the back door of the building and offered to carry it downstairs.

“No, just leave it right here in the kitchen,” they said. (Déjà vu?) They fiddled with the broken arm and mentioned there were other pieces in the museum bearing warning signs about their fragility.

They asked about the four circular depressions in the amber upholstery of the chair seat and I had to confess they were from an old manual typewriter I had purchased at a church sale in Fort Fairfield because it belonged to a niece of former Maine Gov. John Reed. The heavy black Royal had rested in the chair until I returned it to the family last fall, leaving a permanent decorative detail on the chair cushion.

“I guess I am some kind of reservoir for items of local historical interest,” I commented, as I filled out the museum’s accession agreement.

I drove home thinking about what makes an item valuable, appreciating that a chair, or desk or typewriter can trigger a host of recollections about an individual’s life and accomplishments.

But I am still a long way from discarding stacks of Maine Times, The Aroostook Republican, and Blair and Ketchum’s Country Journal dating back to the 1970s.

Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She may be reached by email at kathryn.olmstead@umit.maine.edu.

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