MACHIAS, Maine — A new avenue for doing historical and genealogical research will open sometime in 2016 in the newly renovated Washington County courthouse.
An abbreviated law library and research room will be launched with documents now in the collection of Machias historian and genealogist Valdine Atwood, county Manager Betsy Fitzgerald said.
“She’s going to put duplicate [documents] up here first and eventually everything will come here,” Fitzgerald said. “She thought having her records available to access would be a wonderful thing … I’m just completely flattered by the fact she would be willing to do that.”
Atwood, 84, said her four grown children are not particularly interested in genealogy or history. She often wondered what would happen to her collection and now has a plan for it.
“I’m going to head up putting together the research room,” she said. “I’m so pleased that this collection will go someplace where it can be used by others and it won’t be lost.”
The courthouse also will house a museum in a second room, Fitzgerald said. Local artifacts, such as some bottles found during courthouse renovations, will be on display. These artifacts are believed to date to the Civil War era and are believed to have been left in the courthouse during the last renovation in the 1890s.
Fitzgerald described the research room and law library as “a quiet place with some tables, some computers and all of this material.”
She said a second collection of documents has been donated for the research room and other individuals are encouraged to donate items they may not want but know should be saved. Copies of documents also will be gratefully accepted.
Fitzgerald praised Atwood, saying everyone in the Machias area knows that, if a question on genealogy or history arises, Atwood is the go-to person.
So far this year, Atwood said, she has received 23 inquiries via email, phone or people stopping by her house.
Last summer, she said a man pulled up to the house on a motorcycle wanting to know if Atwood knew his mother, a woman named Dorothy Love.
Atwood did not. But when he mentioned she had a sister, Corinne, Atwood remembered that Corinne Love had visited Machias in about 1985. She was a descendant of London Atus, a slave of Machias’ first minister, James Lyon.
“This man was so excited,” Atwood said.
In early December, she connected the man with another relative.
“I understand … that they have established a London Atus association and they’re trying to connect people,” she said.
Atwood has used her genealogy expertise to help 85 women complete their applications to the Daughters of the American Revolution, a process in which they must prove they are descended from someone who aided the United States in achieving its independence from Britain.
“When I do those, it’s always fulfilling,” she said.
Fitzgerald said she is frequently amazed by the amount of historical and genealogical information Atwood has just in her head.
Atwood said it comes from familiarity with all her documentation, which includes maps, vital records, cemetery records, deeds and articles about towns and people.
“I have 17 file drawers filled with folders,” she said. In addition, shelves in her home office cover the walls and are filled with books, notebooks and binders.
Atwood said she inherited a love of genealogy from her mother, Veronica, whose nickname was “Scotty.”
Some of the historical documents she inherited from her mother are still in brown envelopes. Atwood has gone through many of the envelopes and created folders marked with the names of every family for whom the folder contains documentation.
“It came to the point that I had to get it in some sort of order and, at times, I still have stuff scattered from here to there,” she said.
Atwood said much of her interest in Machias history was fostered by a neighbor, former Daughters of the American Revolution Regent Evelyn Carroll, who had just lost her husband in 1963. Atwood’s husband, John, suggested his wife visit.
“She told me all kinds of stories and that’s what interested me,” said Atwood, who became regent of the Daughters of the American Revolution herself in 1969.
“In those days, whoever was regent of the chapter was chairman of the Burnham [Tavern],” Atwood said. But the person who took over as regent after Atwood’s term did not want to serve as chair the building that serves as a Machias history museum.
So Atwood stayed on. “And I continued for 38 years,” she said.
A Daughters of the American Revolution magazine celebrating its 125th anniversary this year includes an article on 10 historic buildings preserved by the daughters all over the country. Machias’ own Burnham Tavern was included.
Atwood has been involved in the community in numerous other ways. Since 2000, she has been chair of Washington County Courthouse Archives Committee, for which she is charged with preserving about 600 volumes of newspapers.
A couple of years ago, the Machias Historical Society got a grant to purchase a large format document scanner now used to scan copies of the Eastport Sentinel that date from 1818 to 1946, she said.
“It’s just like looking at the newspaper,” Atwood said. “It’s so much better than microfilm.”
Fitzgerald said she is looking forward to opening the research room and giving Atwood another forum to do her work.
“She has just been a fantastic teacher for those who wish to find their ancestors,” she said.