Androscoggin Historical Society curator Douglas Hodgkin is surrounded by exhibits on the top floor of the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn last week. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Old marbles are part of the museum’s games and collectables exhibit. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

For Douglas Hodgkin, the history at the Androscoggin County Historical Society is his own. A descendent of Jonathan Hodgkin, an original settler in the late 1770s, some of the artifacts housed in the rooms at the top of the Androscoggin County Courthouse in Auburn are ones his family is intimately connected to.

Though he didn’t know the “depth” of his ancestry, Hodgkin joined the society because he knew it was “part of my heritage.” He quickly worked his way up to becoming the president, though currently he is the newsletter editor, secretary, and the Collection Committee chair.

The historical society was founded nearly 100 years ago, in 1923, with Hodgkin being a volunteer since the early 1980s. The group is entirely volunteer run, with a single paid

Shoe manufacturing was a major industry in Auburn at one time, and the collection of shoes, boots and slippers is extensive. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

staffer whose responsibilities are to answer the phone and help with cataloging material.

After being open via appointment only for the first months of the pandemic, the museum was recently opened to the public this month, something Hodgkin and fellow volunteer Beverly Robbins are especially excited about.

“We want to show off our stuff and teach about the history of the area,” Hodgkin said. “We have to move some stuff around so that people can enjoy the museum.”

An elevator takes guests the three flights up to the historical society space, opening into the biggest of three rooms. Not everything is perfectly set up, and the walkways can feel crowded with artifacts and records, but that’s what makes the historical space what it is. Guests are quite literally surrounded by the history of their towns, wherever they look.

We recently asked Hodgkin and Robbins to highlight some of the historical society’s most interesting items, as well as some of their favorites.

A recent donation of Wabanaki items includes a unique club embedded with animal teeth and bone. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The collection includes an 1903 dentist drill powered by a foot pedal. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The first thing they spoke about as we walked through the museum was a dentist drill from 1903. The drill is an overwhelming contraption operated by peddle power by the dentist, with the drill at the end of a long snaking apparatus.

“That’ll make you afraid of the dentist,” Robbins said with a laugh.

Hodgkin next pointed out the Jordan Bird Collection, a large glass cabinet filled with stuffed birds of all sizes from the early 20th century.

“People made bird collections by getting the bird, killing it, and stuffing them with lead,” he said. Because the birds are filled with lead, the volunteers refrain from opening the cabinet. This exhibit, Hodgkin says, is especially popular with children to show them all kinds of local birds that live or lived in Maine.

A small firetruck from 1885 was used in one of the local mills to put out small fires. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Another showstopper is a firetruck from 1885. Yes, a firetruck, though much smaller than today’s versions. Originally associated with one of the local mills, it was used to put out small fires. Robbins noted that though “it would only hold two barrels of water, they would pump it and then it would go through the hose and you’d be able to put out a small fire.”

The historical society has in its possession an earlier firetruck, which was one of the first in Lewiston-Auburn, but members have so far not been able to figure out how to get it up to the society’s third-floor space, hindering guests from viewing it. It is being kept in a storage area.

Currently, Hodgkin, Robbins and other volunteers are sorting through a large donation from Ne-Do-Ba, a nonprofit established in 1997 that chronicles and shares the Wabanaki history of interior New England.

A bicycle of the day (1882) is on display. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The donations include woven baskets, hunting materials and various miscellaneous items, though

the dates of many artifacts are unknown. Nancy Lecompte, also known as Canyon Wolf, is the president and founder of Ne-Do-Ba, and she gave the materials to be displayed and kept in the historical society’s space.

“She approached (us to merge) with Ne-Do-Ba,” Hodgkin said. “She’s busy and so we agreed that we would become the custodians of these materials. It adds tremendously to our collection. Now we have this representation of the Native American heritage.”

One striking piece in the collection is an unknown object, though Hodgkin suspects it may have been a war club or a weapon used for hunting. With a wooden handle and animal teeth lining one edge, it could easily have been used for a variety of purposes. Members continue trying to determine the purpose of the object.

An extensive doll collection takes up a large display case. This doll is made from corn husks. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Robbins pointed out the animal teeth likely belong to a plant eater because they are meant for grinding food, not tearing.

“Moose eat plants and the teeth are big enough to be that,” she speculated. “Could’ve been an elk or something. And they used pitch or something to put on it, it’s not original to the piece.”

Such observations and additional research often help volunteers discover the significance, the use and more historic details for many items in the collection.

A particularly eye-catching artifact is an old bicycle manufactured in 1882. Looking at it with a modern eye, it is almost impossible to understand how those in the L-A area in the late 19th century could have even mounted the bike, let alone ride it. The front wheel is comically larger than its counterpart, and the height of the bicycle is overwhelming.

It was common at one time to frame locks of hair of a loved one, often intricately winding them before framing. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The historical society also has a game and toy collection, which is especially interesting for children. The games include old marbles and dominoes, as well as more eclectic pieces including a child’s musical toy thought to be from Paris, France, made in 1864.

The collection also boasts an impressive number of baby carriages, dolls, and old shoes.

The final artifact they showed was my favorite. Hanging on the wall of the society, adorned in a dark wooden circular frame, was an intricately wound lock of hair. According to Robbins, this was common to do, especially during the Civil War.

“If you lost a loved one, you’d take a lock of their hair, or all of their hair when they were buried, and make a memorial out of it,” she said. The hair on display is over a century old. It is braided and looped in complicated ways, and features a blue ribbon tied into a bow. Though the volunteers did not know the exact story behind it, they guessed it was from the L-A area.

The Androscoggin Historical Society is now open on Wednesday and Thursday from 12:30 to 3:30 p.m. and on Friday from 12:30 to 4 p.m.

 

A portion of the Jordan Bird Collection. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

A ticket on the Androscoggin and Kennebec Railway for one student and a 3-cent ticket for a trip on the Lewiston & Auburn Ferry are reminders of how people once traveled in the area. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal


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