Ben Conant is a founding member of Paris Cape Historical Society and lifelong curator. The society was established in the basement of the Paris Public Library in 1980. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

PARIS — The Paris Cape Historical Society began as a classic American movement – a public gathering at a community establishment.

In this case, the establishment was the Paris Public Library in 1980. Bethel Historical Society’s Stanley Howe was invited to speak  about how to develop a new society, one devoted to the broader community below Paris Hill.

“We had our first meeting at the tail end of ‘8o,” recalled Ben Conant, Paris Cape’s first board president and curator of collections and institutional knowledge. “We filled up the room, 30-40 people. When we formed we had over 200 charter members. We needed a bigger place so we went to the old Paris Fire Hall to hold our meetings.”

The society was founded in 1981.

Following the firehouse, its next home was at the old Oxford County  jail on Western Avenue where it loaned a room and established a museum for a few years. But eventually county administrators needed more office space.

A quilt made by Barbara Swain Frost tells the story of her great-grandfather Leander Swan’s divorce in 1886 from his second wife, Julia Corbett Taylor Swan. The scene depicts an angry Leander, center, his first wife, Harriet, celebrating in heaven while his brother rallies him on. Julia is depicted at the bottom being driven off in a cart by her father. The handmade piece is part of the Paris Cape Historical Society collection in Paris. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

“So we had to get out of there and we stored the collection we had at the old savings buildings, right down here on the corner,” Conant said. “Our next venture, one of the trustees, John Titus, he donated a portion of land on Route 26 to us. That was the start of us coming up with our own building. It was our first permanent museum there.”

Part of a business strip, that location was not ideal for a historical society. Trustees began to search for new headquarters, which brought them to the Porter House at 19 Park St. It had been in the Porter family since the 1830s before being sold to two other parties, the second of whom sold it to the historical society.

With fundraising, bequests and the sale of the Route 26 site, Paris Cape was able to purchase the Porter House and established its permanent headquarters there in 2003.

In 2016 it added a two-story addition that included upstairs storage, an archival and presentation room on the main floor and climate controlled storage in the basement.

The society holds some important primary source collections. Early acquisitions came from the trust of William Viles and included resource materials used by Silas Maxim, co-writer of the town’s history published during the 1880s. Maxim’s documents included journals and daybooks of the 18th and 19th century. The other Viles bequest was hundreds of image negatives belonging to Waterford photographer Edward Greene, who worked from the 1890s until the late 1930s.

“Edward Greene used to make postcards and things like that,” Conant said. “His family sent the negatives to Bill (Viles) to keep in trust. Those two collections were the historical ‘head,’ shall we say, of the historical society. Of course others have given everything else along the way.

“In the last 10 years we also got Jack Quinn’s negatives, about 100,000. It’s a goldmine. Sidney and Roberta Gordon have spent years cataloging the negatives, along with John Davis. A labor of love, that was. It’s one of the best photo collections of western Maine.”

Paris Cape holds the Civil War collection of Arthur Hunt who headed the Sons of Union Veterans, which was the next generation of veterans following the Grand Army of the Republic of the Civil War. It contains archival books on the war produced by the federal government.

Conant estimates that the archive contains about 150 journals and diaries dating from the late 19th century through the 20th.

In addition to primary records, the historical society has an impressive collection of artifacts representing Paris organizations and institutions: memorabilia from the Paris Grange and Paris High School; town reports dating from the 1850s; decades of Maine Registers; Advertiser Democrat (and its previous iterations) archives from the 1840s; and genealogy records.

The Paris Cape Historical Society has a collection of hand-cranked telephones. Nicole Carter/Advertiser Democrat

The town’s storied local manufacturing past, too, is preserved at the historical society, from documents like business and account books to artifacts, like sleds from its sled factory, toys and furniture.

The pandemic shuttered the museum and its collections for the better part of a year in 2020, but midway through 2021 the Paris Cape Historical Society was able to return to its regular Thursday hours and restart its presentation series as it celebrated its 40-year anniversary.

Conant, who has been the society’s curator since its inception, continues working with its trustees on upcoming programming. Membership stands at around 100. He knows that to continue thriving new members with new skills need to get involved.

“We need all the support and interest we can get,” he said. “We need some younger folks.”

 

 


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