I spent the past two months working on the history of my summer community in Maine. It is not exactly family history, although my family has been vacationing in this place by the ocean for almost 100 years, so bear with me while I tell you what I learned about writing local history.
Local history is essential to understanding our ancestors. The towns, cities and rural neighbourhoods where they lived were the places where they went to work, to shop, to worship, to play. By researching their communities, we can get hints about their daily activities, their values, their friends and acquaintances and the educational opportunities open to them.
Biddeford Pool, the community where I spend my summers, is on a tiny peninsula that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, flanked on one side by a sandy beach and on the other by the rocky shore of Saco Bay. Originally known as Winter Harbor, the peninsula was once home to a thriving fishing village with a herring fleet and shipbuilding industry. In the mid-1800s, several enterprising local residents decided to build hotels and rent out rooms to boarders for the summer.
Families from big cities such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Memphis and Montreal have been going there for generations. Eventually, some summer visitors decided to build their own cottages, and they encouraged friends and family members to join them on the coast. Today, many of their descendants are still vacationing at Biddeford Pool, still sailing the same waters, swimming at the same beach and playing on the same golf course that their grandparents and great-grandparents enjoyed.
Many of these families are interrelated, although no one has ever done a big family tree of the summer resident families.
Inspired by my experiences with Genealogy Ensemble, several of us started a blog a few years ago and encouraged people to write their own stories. We invited them to find out how their families first came to Maine, and we asked for childhood memories and other stories. Most people were polite, smiled and nodded, but did not write a word. I can’t say I was totally surprised. People are on holiday there, busy with friends and family, and once they get home, they get into their regular routines. Privacy may have been a concern for some. Also, writing is not easy for everyone.
Even more disappointing was that many people never looked at the blog. Maybe they are just not comfortable with digital media, and perhaps we were too successful in trying to keep it low-key. But it seemed the entire effort was a failure.
This spring I took a fresh look at the two dozen stories that were posted on the blog and enjoyed them. And at a time when most of my parents’ generation have already died or are now well into their 90s, the articles preserve memories of the way things used to be in the community – the bad and the good. So now, a group of about half a dozen of us are again copying what the members of Genealogy Ensemble did: we putting together a collection of short articles in a self-published book. At the very least, it will be on the shelves of the community’s little library, and filed beside the hundreds of old photographs that the Biddeford Pool Historical Society has collected and digitized. Hopefully, future researchers and family members will read it.
Some of us went to the county registry of deeds office to research the histories of our century-old cottages, and we used genealogy sources such as Familysearch.org to find marriage records, census records and city directories, as well as old newspaper databases. Others wrote personal anecdotes.
This project is a bit haphazard. It depends on who volunteered to participate and what he or she chose to write about. It is far from a one-place study or a carefully structured oral history project. And we left out most of the local residents who once lived there year-round, such as the lobster fishermen. That is unfortunate, however, narrowing the focus of the book has made it possible to get the project finished in one season, plus we know clearly who the target audience of the book will be.
I will let you know next summer how it turns out.