BEALS ISLAND, Maine — It was a study in contrasts Friday night at Beals Elementary School. Seven students that make up the school’s seventh- and eighth-grade classes unveiled a “Then and Now” project they had been working on since fall.
Using photographic images, many from historic postcards, the students contrasted locations on Beals Island from the 1800s and early 1900s with the same views today.
Some were immediately striking: A photograph of the village school from the 1800s was displayed next to a photograph of a parking lot — the same site.
“That was what interested me the most,” Kaitlynn Crowley, 13, said. “What we lost.”
C.J. Carver, 13, said it was a way for him to actually see the history of his island. “We have a lot less fields and grasslands and a lot more houses,” he said.
Kasden Beal, 14, was struck by how many more trees there are on the island today.
Kevin Johnson, the photo archivist at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, worked with the students on the project. He said the museum has an enormous collection of photographic negatives from all over Maine, New England and upstate New York that were taken by the Eastern Illustrated Postcard Co.
“That company went to every single town and documented and photographed what was important to the people of that town,” Johnson said.
The students used some of those photographs for the “Then and Now” project, and Johnson helped to find the same spots for the modern photos.
“It was a real process of discovery for the kids,” Johnson said Friday night. “When you are young, you think that where you live was always like it is now.”
Yet, he said, it was also an intimate project. He was struck by how many of the homesteads and buildings were already familiar to the students. “They knew who lived where, whose houses they were. They knew all the names,” he said.
Parents and friends attending the showing also walked down memory lane, pointing out long-gone homes and stores in the older photos and the changes reflected in the students’ new pictures.
Through the project, Johnson said, the students gained a sense of place and a better understanding of where they come from. They not only had to identify the historic images, but they also created photographs of places on the island that they viewed as important to them. They also interviewed members of the Beals Historical Society to gather information on the various properties.
Chris Crowley, the school’s teacher for the seventh and eighth grades, said “Then and Now” was one of the best ways his students could learn local history. He said the students visited the museum last spring as part of a fisheries project and saw a “Then and Now” project on display. “We were hooked,” Crowley said.
“So we set out last November on a brisk, windy day to create our own set of postcards,” Crowley said. The display the students created illustrates the many changes in structures, wooded areas and landmarks, but also clearly shows that the island’s fishing heritage has remained intact.
The project is also a way to put the museum’s huge collection of photographs to work.
“What good are the photographs if no one sees them?” Johnson asked.
The museum has more than 100,000 images, he said, which he admits have become his obsession. He said the “Then and Now” project is perfect for this year’s 75th anniversary of the museum.
Johnson has already completed a “Then and Now” project with Searsport High School and Middle School students and will begin another project with Camden high school students in two weeks.