FORT KENT, Maine — There are treasures to be uncovered in the closets, attics, basements and garages around the St. John Valley. The key is knowing where to look — and recognizing a good thing when it’s spotted.
Chad Pelletier knew exactly where a treasure-trove of Franco-American genealogical information was lurking and, when the entire collection became available, found himself at the right place at the right time.
Thanks to his efforts and with the support of the Fort Kent Historical Society and the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the massive collection of books, photographs, notes, maps and related genealogical ephemera is now indexed, cataloged and available to researchers and others interested in family history.
“This collection belongs to the people, to everyone [because] it is about them and about Franco-Americans all over the United States,” said Lise Pelletier, director of the Acadian Archives. “Why have it if we are not going to share it?”
Before finding its new home, the collection belonged to Leon Guimond, a Frenchville native who worked for many years pouring cement in Connecticut. Guimond now resides in a Madawaska health care facility, but Chad Pelletier has many fond memories of the local genealogist spanning two decades.
“I’ve known Mr. Guimond since I was 12,” said Chad Pelletier, now president of the Fort Kent Historical Society. “I used to bicycle over to his house, and that’s really what started my interest in genealogy and local history.”
Chad Pelletier recalls purchasing his first local history book from Guimond.
“He started studying genealogy in Connecticut and was instrumental in forming the Connecticut Genealogical Society and other societies around New England,” Chad Pelletier said. “He moved back to Frenchville, and his collecting really took off.”
Guimond’s interest in family histories predated the Internet, so access to genealogical records most often had to be purchased in books or other publications.
“He never even anticipated the Internet,” Chad Pelletier said. “Now a lot that information is available online for free.”
What makes the Leon Guimond Collection so special, Lise Pelletier said, is that for the most part it is primary source information.
“These are books and notes Mr. Guimond accumulated over 40 years,” she said. “The books alone more than doubled our genealogy section here at the archives.”
The collection includes more than 1,200 books and periodicals, dozens of articles and hundreds of photographs, maps and index card notes of family histories.
Two years ago Chad Pelletier learned the family was interested in selling the entire collection, but timing and funding prevented the Fort Kent Historical Society from acting on the sale.
Last spring, Chad Pelletier heard the collection was still for sale and at a price within reach of the society.
“I called Mrs. Guimond and made an offer and she accepted it,” he said. “Through a cash donation from one of our members we were able to purchase it.”
That donation came from Fort Kent native Greta Martin, who now lives in New Jersey, where she produces the cable television show “America, A View From the Top.”
Money in hand, Chad Pelletier immediately went to excavate and retrieve the historical treasure — all 80 boxes of it.
Once delivered safely to the Acadian Archives, indexing and cataloging the collection became the job of archives administrative assistant Anne Chamberlain.
“This man was a genealogist for more than 50 years,” Chamberlain said. “So when people were researching information for family reunions or for events like the Acadian Festival, they would go see Leon.”
For good reason.
“He had drawers and drawers full of index cards with family information on them,” Chamberlain said. “That’s how he got started, and eventually he put the information on computer disks.”
As luck would have it, Guimond’s computer and the information it contained were part of the collection, and with the help of Fort Kent native Allen Voisine, the information from those old floppy disks has been recovered and stored in a more up-to-date digital system.
For Lise Pelletier, some of the more exciting finds in the collection are the books no longer in print.
“We now have some of the originals of these books,” she said.
Among them are the 45-volume set of “Repertoire des actes de baptimes, mariages, sepultures et recensements du Quebec ancien (PRDH)” containing exhaustive Quebec genealogical records and a 73-volume set of books published by the Jesuit missionaries covering day-to-day life among the Acadians of Maritime Canada and Louisiana and the Iroquois, Abanaki and Huron from 1610 to 1791.
Because many of the books cover families and information not directly related to Fort Kent, Chad Pelletier said the decision was made to house the entire collection at the archives while keeping duplicate publications relevant to local history at the historical society center in the old Fort Kent train station.
“As far as we know, this is the largest private genealogical collection in the state,” Chad Pelletier said. “Now the archives has it set up the way it should be so people interested in just Fort Kent history can come to the historical society to do research or do expanded Franco-American research at the archives.”
The collection at the Acadian Archives will be known as the Leon Guimond Library while the smaller collection housed at the historical society is the Leon Guimond Library Annex.
Over the years, Guimond’s research included Franco-American families in Maine, Quebec, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Ontario.
“When we got it, the collection was a bit of a jumble and chaotic,” Chamberlain said. “I had to go through all those index cards one by one.”
Now the entire collection is indexed and searchable on the University of Maine System’s online URSUS cataloging database.
“Anyone can come in during regular business hours to access any part of the collection,” Lise Pelletier said. “If someone wants to come in over a weekend or evenings, we can be flexible and accommodate them.”
The availability of the collection, Lise Pelletier said, could not come at a better time now that the first group of families has been identified to hold reunions in connection with the 2014 World Acadian Congress taking place around the St. John Valley, New Brunswick and Quebec.
“We’ve already received quite a few requests for genealogical information,” Chamberlain said. “It’s a really good feeling when people come in and tell us they’ve been looking for a [family member’s information] for years and we can help them find it.”
For Chad Pelletier, the acquisition of the collection is a dream come true.
“Ironically, having that collection or something like it was a dream I had when I first met Mr. Guimond,” he said. “I can’t believe we actually have it now, [and] I am so thankful it is staying in the St. John Valley.”