Nov. 14—LEWISTON — For the first time in 44 months, the Androscoggin Historical Society flung open its doors Tuesday in a brand-new, family-friendly location in downtown Lewiston.
David Chittim, the organization's president, said it is "perhaps the largest step" the nonprofit has made since its formation a century ago.
Since purchasing the brick building at 93 Lisbon St. two years ago, volunteers have scurried to move more than 10,000 items out of the society's longtime quarters in the Androscoggin County Building, catalog them carefully and put everything where it can be found again.
"What an exciting day this is," state Sen. Peggy Rotundo, a Lewiston Democrat, said as she spoke to a crowd of 40 people gathered in front of the new quarters just before everyone was invited inside.
She said the "beautiful, new home" of the society is a gift box filled with treasures that include precious antiques, old letters, photographs and much more.
Taken together, Rotundo said, they show "how we got here and why we live the way we do," something that seems especially important for a grieving community in the wake of the Oct. 25 mass shooting that killed 18 people in Lewiston.
"I'm so pleased that the society has moved to a place where we can actually display much of our material" and people can come to see it easily, said Doug Hodgkin, 84, who has been a part of the society for half his life and written extensively about the area's history.
Hodgkin, a retired Bates College professor, said the item that usually impresses people most is an old wooden sign that details the tolls for crossing the bridge between Lewiston and Auburn.
"That is particularly outstanding," he said.
The sign, which hangs in the main room inside, declares that passengers were required to hand over a penny while a person on a horse had to cough up 6 cents to make the passage. Wagons and buggies were charged a dime.
Other gems, Hodgkin said, include the largest photograph collection in Androscoggin County and a big library of books and other reference materials that genealogists and other researchers crave.
Curtis Jack, a former president of the society, said the organization's purpose is to gather, preserve and share the cultural treasures of Androscoggin County.
Moving from out-of-the-way, cramped and dusty quarters on the top floor of the county building, where the society has been for 85 years, makes the nonprofit more visible and available, he said.
It's part of a bold move to make the society a more central institution in the life of the community.
Jack said that for years, its annual budget was about $20,000. Now, determined to make a difference, its yearly spending is expected to be more like $300,000, a clear indication of its ambitions.
He said the shooting recently "brought into focus" the society's key role in helping residents understand their community's history.
"We have the story" of Androscoggin County as well as its chief cities of Lewiston and Auburn, Jack said.
Chittim said that getting to the point where the Lisbon Street building could open to the public has been "a long and arduous process." that required a lot of work by volunteers.
Lewiston Mayor Carl Sheline said he is "very, very happy" at seeing the work pay off and the nonprofit fill a storefront downtown.
The building was most recently home to the law offices of Murphy & Coyne, which called it home for 33 years. Both of the attorneys, now retired, showed up to help scrape their names off the window in front.
"Gentlemen, start your razors," Chittim declared.
It turned out, though, that scraping decades-old letters off cold glass isn't easy. But the two men managed to make a good start.
Paul Murphy said that the law firm "is the past. The Androscoggin Historical Society is the future."
Since its construction in 1866 for Atwood's Market, the building has also housed an oyster dealer, a glove seller, a watch store, a beauty salon, an antiques peddler and no doubt other enterprises.
Now, though, it appears set to serve as a house of history for at least a long spell.
Since the pandemic largely shut down the society's previous location in March 2020, Chittim said, the society has been essentially closed for 44 months.
"We are now so pleased to open again," Chittim said.
Rotundo praised the people who created the society in 1923 and all those who have made it possible "to pass this down from generation to generation" to the present day.
Now, she said, it's "up to all of us" to make sure it continues to thrive for another hundred years.
The building will be open to the public, at least initially, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays, and noon to 4 p.m. on Fridays.
For more information, call 207-784-0586.
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