SUMNER — A Harvard University education is available to anyone who walks through the front door of the historic Increase Robinson Library and Neighborhood House.

That’s the promise and the mission of the late Dr. Lucien Robinson, who in the 1940s, bequeathed his great-great-grandfather Increase Robinson’s house to the towns of Sumner and Hartford, along with most of his 25,000 volumes of books and artifacts gathered during years of world travel.

It was Robinson’s intent to allow residents who had no money to go to college to get a Harvard University-level education through his book collection.

We keep that spirit,” Trustee Kathryn Kelly said.

There are books written in Latin and other languages no one can decipher; books by Maine authors; a stage curtain from the former Union Grange with an oil painting of North Pond in front of Mount Tom; rocks from the Coliseum, Jerusalem and elsewhere; Civil War artifacts and butcher hooks still embedded in the rafters where animals were once slaughtered.

The wood-frame 1784 house is now a museum known as the Neighborhood House. The building and adjacent woodshed that was turned into the library don’t have heat — only limited electricity — and no computers.

We encourage old-style research,” Kelly said. “Not everything is on the internet.”

Old-style research flourishes at the library, and the possibilities for exploration and discovery are almost as endless as the nooks and crannies that house everything from old kitchenware to old lights and brass candlesticks.

The library has become the depository for local family scrapbooks and Bibles and other genealogical papers and artifacts, and continues to thrive because of a group of dedicated librarians, donations from the public and the enthusiasm of visitors.

For a long time, anyone who had anything would bring it down and dump it,” said Trustee Betty Marston, whose father was one of the original five library trustees designated by Lucien Robinson in the 1940s. “But you can’t keep everything. It was hard to part with some of it.”

It wasn’t always easy to keep the library and museum going with only volunteers and donations from the public to rely on its continued operation.

We went through a rough time,” Kelly said. But when times were hard, people came through for the library and museum, she said. When something was needed, it suddenly appeared.

It still has some original fixtures, including a large working fireplace, an ornately carved upright piano and pump organ, handmade iron hardware, original stenciling that has been uncovered in the living room and an elaborate mantlepiece almost three feet wide.

Nearby is the burial ground of one of George Washington’s bodyguards.

I just grew up here,” Marston said. “I’m so thankful it’s still here.” 

Busy librarians 

The Trustees and volunteers have been organizing research materials and artifacts within the house and library so that all who enjoy history can enjoy this window into the past,” Trustee Diana Tolman said in a statement. “The library is fortunate to have a growing ‘Friends of the Library’ list.”

Tolman said that Dorothy Hinshaw and Cynthia Norton have been working for two years on organizing the fiction section and are beginning to work on nonfiction books, implementing the Dewey Decimal System.

The proprietary library classification system, first developed in 1876,  introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index, which allow new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject rather than the order of acquisition.

There is a more modern lending section in the front of the library, as well as an extensive genealogy section, she said.

The front yard is usually strewn with cars and bicycles on days it is open. Inside the buildings are beehives of activity from visitors being given tours to librarians going through the stacks and others doing research in what is considered a repository for local history.

It’s one of the few places kids still ride their bikes up and dump them on the front yard,” Marston said.

The children’s section is in the back of the library, the former woodshed. Children sit on old wooden benches among old wooden school desks under the hooks where years ago, animals were hung and slaughtered. Some of the animal blood was used to paint the house, as was custom at that time.

The Neighborhood House and Increase Library is located on Route 219 at the intersection of Route 140 on the bank of the east branch of the Twenty Mile River in East Sumner Village. The house was built by Deacon Increase Robinson in 1784 — the first wood-frame house in what was then known as Butterfield.

Robinson was one of 21 men from Massachusetts who received farms in the Sumner/Hartford area after the close of the Revolutionary War, according to articles written by trustees and other volunteers, including Cynthia Norton. Sumner took its name from Increase Sumner, a Massachusetts governor.

The house eventually was passed down to Dr. Lucien Robinson of Hartford — a world traveler who lived for a time in Philadelphia, but made his summer home in Maine —  in 1931 and that’s when the idea for a library was developed.

“I think that the research portion is the thing that draws people there,” Tolman said. “The atmosphere of the entire place takes you back to times that were so basic — survival and work to take care of your family.  I think some of us become addicted to the place. We have been working the last two years to inform the two communities (Hartford and Sumner) that this place belongs to them.”

The library and museum are open Tuesdays and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon during the summer months and by appointment.

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