The Little Archive That Grew Strong

-Beth Kanell, Archives Month Committee Member

As local historical societies go, Waterford, Vermont, is on the small side. A well-attended meeting is a dozen people; a public event that draws 30 is a striking success. And the treasury is healthy for the group’s needs, but modest. Annual dues are $5 per person.

However, this Connecticut River town embraces a complicated and rich history, with abundant documents that provide details. From the land records in the town vault, to recent newspaper clippings from one of the few remaining daily newspapers in the state, and from old photo albums discovered in residents’ belongings, to unusual notes and photos found via online markets, there’s a lot to save!

“Upper Waterford,” that is, the original town center of Waterford, is under the waters behind Moore Dam (completed 1954), part of a three-dam hydroelectric facility on the Connecticut River that began to tame the region’s Fifteen Mile Falls in the 1930s. That awareness of a “drowned village,” where even the local church was burned to the ground to make room for progress, may be one reason that this little local group embraces its archives so enthusiastically.

But it also reminds us that the waters of the river and local streams that have fueled the town’s growth in past centuries can also sweep away the paper evidence of its inhabitants and their stories. So can fire, which is locally managed with a volunteer department and mutual aid from nearby towns. Preserving our archives requires strong, deliberate choices.

Fortunately, those aren’t expensive, other than in terms of volunteer hours.

We strengthened our initial archival effort with an invitation to VSARA (Vermont State Archives & Records Administration) professional Rachel Onuf. She joined the board and other interested members around a set of tables covered with materials. Excitement rose as people began to talk about individual items. Conversation ranged across the usual reminders to each other of how to preserve and protect paper—getting rid of staples and paper clips, storing under low humidity, even protecting from sprinkler systems, as well as from sunlight.

A lockable metal cabinet protects the document archives of the Waterford Historical Society.

A shopping list at the end of the session included archivally stable folders, boxes, and tissue paper, available online. Using these, we housed materials in a six-foot-tall lockable metal storage cabinet, with access controlled by a partnership of the Waterford Historical Society and the Town Clerk. Importantly for our location, the seller provided delivery of the parts. The Town Clerk shared space in the vault for a few Items too large for the cabinet, and less rare books and town reports stayed on shelves in the adjoining town library for easy access.

After that, the biggest cost turned out to be time: hours and hours of volunteers, sorting, separating, labeling. It wasn’t simple to raise enthusiasm—it meant weeks of photos, blogging, research, sharing enthusiasm, and directly inviting people to become involved.

Yet that process turned out to be exactly what gave the most strength to our archive development, as we shared town history in widening circles and scaffolded people’s interest in the buildings, families, and changes in this small town.

The result: Each November, and often in other winter months, the Waterford Historical Society announces archive work days, whether in the library, the church fellowship hall, or the lobby of the town office. With a laptop, our cellphones, and most importantly, a few older residents bringing in material and helping to identify faces and families, we make discoveries and deepen our understandings of how times change and how families survive.

Waterford Historical Society board members (from right) Donna Rae Heath, Roberta Smith, Helen Pike, and Craig Brown and historian Nola Forbes sort donated materials into archival boxes and label binders (alphabetical by family name). Photo by WHS board member Beth Kanell.

“Small but mighty” has become the tag line for this group. It’s surely a subtitle for the state’s own sense of how to get things done and hold onto our history: We are Vermont Strong. And we’re strengthening our archives daily.

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