CAMDEN, Maine — The worn leather book might be riddled with tiny wormholes and have pages that are yellowed by time.
But two centuries after being part of Camden’s very first lending library, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1790 “History of England, Vol. 1,” has come home at last to the delight of astonished local librarians.
A man from Thousand Oaks, Calif., hand-delivered the book in mid-April to the Edward J. Walsh History Center at the Camden Public Library, along with two other antique volumes with strong ties to the area.
Archivist Heather Bilodeau said she was very glad that Chuck Regan had decided that the books belonged in Camden.
“These are treasures,” she said. “It’s extremely special that these have made their way back to us, 200 years later. We get a lot of donations, but nothing quite this old. And the journey these books have been on is pretty fantastic.”
Regan joked in a phone interview that he is crossing his fingers about one thing.
“Hopefully, there’s not going to be a fine after 200 years,” he said.
The story of the three books began in 1796, when the Federal Society Library of “Cambden,” then part of Lincoln County, was founded. Not much is known about the library, Bilodeau said, other than the fact that it had about 200 volumes. The Goldsmith history was stamped number 53, still clearly visible even after all this time.
It is the only one of those original books to make its way back to Camden.
“What a journey this has been on — and I would love to know where the others are,” Bilodeau said.
By 1826, the Federal Society Library had disbanded, its books sold at auction. Somehow, volume number 53 made its way down the coast of Maine to Portland, where it was found by Regan’s grandfather.
John J. Ward was a policeman who spent the 1920s working as a beat cop on the Portland waterfront, and it wasn’t unusual for him to peruse old secondhand and antique shops there.
“He collected stuff. He loved old things,” Regan said. “He loved antiques, and he loved old books.”
When Ward died in 1960, a fiber flour barrel packed with his books ended up in Regan’s parents’ house in Portland’s west end.
But they never got unpacked, and over the years, most of the books turned to mush in the decaying barrel.
Regan came home from California in the mid-1990s to help his folks clean things out, and he found the barrel.
“Those three made it,” he said of the rescued books.
In addition to the history book, Regan found an all-Latin 1838 copy of Cicero’s Orations that had belonged to Camden’s Dr. Benjamin Dudley Emerson Huse.
He also found a book from 1829 with a very long title: “The Voyages and Adventures of Captain Robert Boyle, in Several Parts of the World, Intermixed with the Story of Mrs. Villars, an English Lady with whom he made his surprising Escape from Barbary, Likewise Including The History of an Italian Captive.”
This pocket-sized, and apparently adventure-packed book, had belonged to Freeman Hall of Matinicus Island.
“If you were on Matinicus Island in 1829, that might be one of your favorite possessions,” Regan speculated. “It’s someone’s adventures at sea.”
Regan carried the books back to his home in California and kept them on his bookshelves, the oldest volumes in his personal collection.
But when he became a volunteer docent at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, Calif., Regan found a new appreciation of what history can mean to people.
“I thought it would be nice if these things could be shared,” he said of the old books.
He and his wife were driving to Maine for a family wedding in April and figured they would bring the books on a reconnaissance visit to the Camden Public Library.
“I wanted to look and make sure the books would find a good home,” he said.
Regan liked what he saw, especially in the history center, a welcoming place where patrons can do historical and genealogical research.
“I thought, wow, they’re really doing a good job here, preserving the history,” Regan said.
He and his wife approached Bilodeau and told her that they had something for the library.
“It was a complete shock when he walked in with the books in his hand,” she said. “It was a gracious donation.”
Because of the poor condition of the books, they might not be worth much money, Bilodeau said, but their value to the library is great.
The three books will go on display at the history center beginning in about two weeks and become part of the story of Camden’s history, she said. They’ll be protected in glass cases and be available to scholars.
“It’s wonderful to know that these items have come home at last,” said Nikki Maounis, library director. “And those books have more than one story to tell, I’m sure.”