Jean Hankins, the Otisfield town archivist, holds a file containing information about the Ryefield Bridge




Hankins holds a home photographed in her project to document all the residential buildings  in Otisfield. Photo by Jon Bolduc, Sun Journal

Editor’s Note: March is Women’s History month. We have been fortunate to have many women throughout history who are remembered for their contributions to their community, state, country and the world. This month we would like to recognize our women who contribute on a daily basis, quietly, in their own way. They may not make the history books, but they certainly deserve to make our pages.

OTISFIELD—Picture this: May 5, 1850. May Pride Knight, four or five months pregnant , lives in a white Cape on Cobbs Hill Road in Otisfield. Mr. Lowell, a minister, stops by, mother comes in from her washing, and Frederick Brackett comes in from the barn. Just like that, without any kind of circumstance, Knight and Brackett were wed.

Thanks to Jean Hankins, 83, the archivist for the Otisfield Historical Society, Mary Pride Knight lives on. The diary, an account of Knight’s life, covers 60 years; a daily account of where she was, what she ate, and who she talked to.

“I transcribed the diary. It took a long time,  and it was hard to read. I had to use the microfilm, so I cranked, typed and cranked for two years. Then, I had to proofread it, and you can imagine what that was like. It was 2,000 pages by the time I finished,” said Hankins.

Hastings started working on the town archives in 1993, taking over the reigns from her mother in law. Upon arrival, Hankins set out to transform the archives from a woven laundry basket full of loose pictures and documents in the Otisfield Town Hall.

I decided that we could do better than that. We still have the basket. I have a PHD in History, and I was just coming off that; I was a very late starter. Coming off that, I was full of enthusiasm. But I had never studied archives. I used them, and I knew what they should look like this,” Hankins said,  gesturing towards the climate controlled room full of metal shelves and boxes. 

But I didn’t know how to get them to that point. So I immediately took a course given by Maine archives and museums. Offered to all the historical societies in the state that want to join. The one day course cost $30, Introduction to Being an Archivist. They still offer that for 30 dollars, it’s terrific. They give you a box, they give you some folders, they more or less get you started.”

According to Hankins, archives are not arranged like a library. Libraries are sorted by authors, titles, and subjects. Archives are arranged by the order things are received;  for example, if Mr. Smith gifts all of his family papers, they don’t get separated out; the items stay together as a collection. 

“Everything has a number. If it’s done right, I can find it for you. I can find it pretty fast,” said Hankins. “This is my own system. There’s no other system like it. It is organized, but it’s not obvious. It would help if I could train someone on how to use it. It’s all cataloged, so the information is there, but you have to know how to use it,” said Hankins.

For Hankins, finding a replacement to take over for her is a struggle.

“It’s true of every historical society. We’re getting old. I’m 83. We’ve got a need to replace me. We haven’t had much luck finding a replacement.”

Hankins said she doesn’t plan on stopping anytime soon, however. In the summer months, the archives are open one day a week, from 2-4. But Hankins said anyone who wants to seek out information, or view the archives should contact her.

I’m always available, for as long as I last,” she said. 

But for the woman who led the archives from a woven basket at the town hall, to a storage closet in the town hall, to a vault in the town hall, to Hankins’ own barn, finally finding a suitable home in the basement of the Bell Hill Schoolhouse, the work hasn’t been tedious; more akin to a calling.

Hankins said her natural inclination for history, and for research, came as a natural springboard for her work in the archives. Hankins’ husband taught English at the University of Connecticut for 30 years, and Hankins worked part time while raising four children.

“I started editing and typing for people; started writing indexes,  I’ve always been interested in history and genealogy research,” said Hankins. Hankins first project after taking the reigns? Indexing a lengthy tome by former Otisfield historian William Spurr.

He was a good historian, and an eccentric person. He lived here his whole life,  and because the book is accurate, we have a better history than most. We have that advantage; I have that advantage,” she said.  After indexing the book, Hankins’ steady stream of projects haven’t stopped.

Hankins said she’s launched many projects over the course of her tenure as Town Archivist, including a pre-Google Maps attempt at taking a photograph of every home in Otisfield, and a report detailing the historic poor of Otisfield. And the collection continues to grow. 

“It’s taken all these years, and we’re still adding on,” said Hankins. Case in point; a few weeks ago, the family of Warden Scribner, an Harrison man, donated some artifacts from Otisfield’s history.

“I know what it is, and we have others like it, but I’m delighted to have it,” said Hankins. The artifact? A passbook detailing the daily work of a youth maintaining roads.

In the pre-Civil War era, towns were divided between highway surveyors who took care of the roads in their district. Every male between 16-and 60 was required to work one day a year on the roads as a civil service. 

“They didn’t get paid for it,  it was there duty as a citizen, and very different from the way things are now,” she said.

And Hankins said this passbook highlighted an important perspective she’s gained through her years of work.

“We don’t have to do things the way we do them. We’ve done them differently in the past. Only circumstances change,” said Hankins.

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