NEWRY — Selectmen in Newry are considering what, if anything, should be done with the several hundred books that once comprised the public lending library of the former town of Grafton, just north of Newry.
Town Administrator Loretta Powers said, “Since there’s no town of Grafton anymore, and no one really knows who the library belongs to, I emailed [Oxford County Administrator] Scott Cole to ask what to do with it, how to preserve it, insure it, or whatever.”
After the December County Commissioners meeting, Cole responded, “The question was met with more questions. What may the options be for disposition of the Grafton Library? A historical society? Would the town guarantee safekeeping? The county is also an option if there seemed to be a lean toward none of the above.”
Cole said the Commissioners will revisit the question at their meeting on Jan. 21, and Newry officials are welcome to join them then. Powers said she hopes to attend that meeting.
The books currently reside in two glass-fronted wooden bookcases in the Newry Town Office. Most date from the late 1800s and are in excellent condition. Many are still protected by the brown paper covers that were placed on them when they were added to the library well over a century ago. A bookplate in the front of each volume identifies it as the property of the Grafton Library.
Grafton, the town
That Grafton had a library at all may come as a surprise to many. Grafton existed as a town for less than 70 years, and throughout that time was extremely isolated. Although during the winters it was home to multiple logging camps, each housing as many as a hundred men, the town’s year-round population peaked in 1880 at 115.
Leslie Davis, who was born in Grafton in 1892 and lived most of his childhood there, wrote in his memoir of rare trips to Bethel, more than 20 miles away: “A trip to the store was a real event…most families did not make a trip to the store more than two or three times a year.”
Davis recalled that his father usually traveled to Bethel from Grafton in the fall, “and carried with him one or more butchered hogs or beef and some butter, which he exchanged for flour, sugar and a few other smaller grocery items.”
Margaret Joy Tibbetts researched Grafton in 1988 for the Bethel Historical Society’s newsletter, The Bethel Courier. “Basically, Grafton was always a very small and primitive pioneer settlement,” she wrote. “There was a post office, but never a real store. There was no church; in the summer, ministers came occasionally from Upton or Newry for services in the schoolhouse, and there were occasional evangelical ‘missionaries’ to the men in the lumber camps.”
But despite their isolation—or maybe because of it—the residents of Grafton were adept at making their own entertainment. “There were parties to which everyone was invited and to which almost everyone went,” Tibbetts wrote. “There was dancing and…such things as molasses candy, roasted peanuts, lemonade in the summer, berry pies, fudge from a new recipe, etc. There was a Fourth of July picnic for the children and a Christmas tree at the schoolhouse each year.”
And there was a library. Its existence was due largely to the efforts of one woman, Mary Brown Otis, the daughter of one of Grafton’s original founders, who was born and lived nearly all of her life in the town.
The area northwest of Newry was a vast tract of wilderness in 1834, when James Brown, who had established a lumbering business there, brought his new wife to his rustic log cabin.
According to a Lewiston Journal story by Sadie Hanscom about the history of Grafton (12/14/1940), “the bridal trip was made on foot, by ox team, and even by crossing the river on floating logs.” Fortunately for his bride, the former Ruth Swan of Newry, “Captain Jim” had thoughtfully presented her with “a pair of custom-made, long-legged calfskin boots” as a wedding gift.
The Browns’ daughter Mary, delivered in the log cabin in 1939, was the first child born in the new settlement, which would not incorporate as a town until 1852. Hanscom stated that Mary “had an exceptionally good mind and became very well educated for those days. After her training in the home schoolroom, she went to the Academy at Paris Hill, where she attained high scholarship.”
Mary returned home after her schooling, became a teacher, and married George Otis, who worked for her father.
Hanscom wrote, “It was to the initiative of this woman, Mary Brown Otis, that a library was made possible for Grafton. By means of suppers, socials, entertainments, etc., the money was slowly accumulated and the library grew to over 1,000 volumes. These were housed in private homes.”
The 1880 Atlas of Oxford County, Maine shows some two dozen homesteads in Grafton, most of them north of Grafton Notch. Less than 40 years later, however, the population had dwindled to just a few families.
“There were several miles of relatively flat land above the Notch where there was room for farms,” wrote Tibbetts, “but because of the short growing season, farming was of necessity limited; livestock, hay, sometimes potatoes, and grain (usually oats) were the main crops. Frosts came unfailingly in late June and mid-August, and were not unknown in July.”
Logging had always been the only reliable way to make a living in Grafton, and after several decades of heavy cutting, most of the harvestable timber was gone.
“Even if its inhabitants had not cut off their wood so prodigally,” Tibbetts wrote, “Grafton could not have survived, for there was no other source of livelihood.”
One by one, families moved away, and in 1919 the town surrendered its charter. Most of the houses were sold to the Brown Company, which razed them to reduce fire danger. The company then launched a reforestation effort, planting trees to replace those that had been cut, and today there is little evidence that a settlement once existed there.
No one seems quite sure how the contents of the Grafton Library came into Newry’s possession. Hanscom’s 1940 article says, “The books are now at Upton, having been taken there when the township was abandoned.”
Newry selectman Brooks Morton remembers that at one time the library was housed in a farmhouse belonging to Bessey Leonard that once stood across the street from the present Newry Town Office.
At some point, the collection was moved to the historic Sunday River schoolhouse. After SAD 44 transferred ownership of the former Raymond C. Foster Elementary School to the town, and it was converted it into municipal office space, the library was moved there. Morton said the Sunday River schoolhouse was unheated, and it was thought that continuing to subject the books to extremes of heat and humidity would hasten their deterioration.
For now, the Grafton Library is at home in one corner of the large public space at the Town Office, where an old map of Oxford County, which shows the town of Grafton as it existed in the late 19th century, is preserved under glass. Powers said she does not allow the Grafton Library books to be removed from the Town Office, but people are welcome to look through them there.
In addition to the contents of the library, the town of Newry is also in possession of vital records from Grafton, which have been stored, along with Newry’s own earliest vital records, in an old safe in the basement of the town office.
Morton said the old records are fragile, and the board has begun discussing whether to have Newry’s records professionally treated to prevent them from degrading further, as has been done recently in at least one other area town.
Woodstock voters appropriated $20,000 last year toward preserving some of the town’s vital records that had begun to degrade over time.
“We had our oldest birth, marriage, and death records, as well as some of our town clerk books, preserved,” said Woodstock Town Manager Vern Maxfield. “They take the books completely apart, de-acidify the paper, then seal it.”
After being placed between clear protective sheets, the pages are rebound. Woodstock has had 12 record books preserved so far, and will be sending out a few more for preservation. Maxfield said the procedure costs between $1,000 and $1,500 per book, and preserves the records indefinitely.
Newry selectmen expect to have further discussions of both the Grafton library and the old town records over the next few months.