WESTBROOK – Of the thousands of items in the vast collections of the Westbrook Historical Society, none mean more to Mike Sanphy, society president, than the genealogical records.

The records, stored in dozens of neat volumes, contain certificates of birth and death, photographs, and other documents and heirlooms donated by some of the most well-known families in the entire city. There are records pertaining to the Valentine family, descended from Westbrook’s first mayor, Leander Valentine, who took office in 1890; records connected to the Conant family, one of the city’s oldest; and even the Pride family, for whom Prides Corner is named.

“This is Westbrook’s heritage,” said Sanphy, also a city councilor.

The records have been packed away in boxes for now, leaving their shelves on the second floor of the Stephen W. Manchester American Legion Post No. 62 empty. The 17 Dunn St. building has been the society’s home since 2001, when it moved from its original home, in a couple of rooms in the building society members still refer to as the “old Westbrook High School” on Main Street. Now, another moving day looms – this time, to the community center at the Fred C. Wescott Building.

Diane Dyer, the society’s director, said the move in part is to make the society more accessible. Right now, the society gets about 25 people visiting per month, but she is sure there could be more.

“A lot of people don’t even know we’re here,” she said.

The community center, on the other hand, is a far more visible location, she said, and first-floor access there will make visiting the collection even easier. Right now, visitors must travel up a steep flight of stairs.

“The idea was to make it more available to people,” Sanphy said.

The other goals, he added, are to make the collection safer. Its new home, he said, will have fire alarms and sprinklers, something the society doesn’t have at the legion building. The city also won’t have to pay $600 per month in rent to house the collection, either, Sanphy said.

So how do you move thousands of dishes, letters, photos, plaques, and other memorabilia from one location to another?

“We anticipated a couple of full days (of work),” said the society’s treasurer, Nancy Curran, prompting a laugh from her and her fellow members as they discussed the packing and moving efforts, which as of Tuesday morning had taken more than a week so far.

All around them, piles of boxes sat, some filled, some waiting to be filled, and hundreds more items were still on shelves, hanging on racks, and pinned to walls. A collection of flags was rolled up and resting on top of one bank of shelves. There were photos, some framed, many that weren’t, of sports teams, graduating classes and other school pictures. Bronze trophies winked in the morning sun. An old Monarch typewriter sat on a wooden table, a bottle of what looked like correcting fluid sitting on it as though recently discarded by an editor.

There were uniforms of all sorts, from police and fire departments of a bygone age to an old bandleader’s jacket from the now-defunct S.D. Warren Band, to Boy and Girl Scout uniforms, even what looked like a native American dress, with a label describing it as a “campfire ceremonial gown,” and the date, 1927.

There were artifacts from the fire and police departments, including a fireman’s helmet, a collection of badges and an old battery-powered portable radio telephone 10 times the size of a modern cell phone.

While the scene on Tuesday seemed a bit chaotic, a closer look revealed a more ordered approach. Each item, every last one, is tagged with a unique number. That number, along with the item’s description, is stored in a computerized database, so that during the move nothing is misplaced.

Dyer said the work has been slow going, in part because of the volume, and in part because volunteers can only spend a few hours a day working.

“If they had to pay me for my time, I’d be rich now,” she joked.

Curran said the society’s collection has been growing since its inception in 1975, but much of it has come into the society’s care within the past decade.

“I know there are probably four times as many things here now as there was when we first moved,” she said.

It’s not clear just how long it will take to pack up everything – then unpack it – but Sanphy said he hopes the society will be ready to offer a full open house, showing off the new location, in March.

Until then, the society will keep packing, leaving nothing behind. Not the stained-glass window from the Warren Congregational Church, not the faded blue “Welcome Home Rudy” banner the city hung when favorite son Rudy Vallee came back from Hollywood for a visit in 1930, not the hanging outdoor globes that used to light the outside of the Scates building, torn down in the 1970s. Nothing.

“Everything tells a story,” Sanphy said. “Everything has a purpose.”

Members of the Westbrook Historical Society are staring down a
tremendous challenge as they prepare to move their enormous
collection of items from the second floor of the Manchester
American Legion Post on Dunn Street to its new home in the
community center on Bridge Street. Here, Evelyn Meserve and Diane
Dyer formulate a plan for dealing with the many items still needing
to be packed away. (Photo by Rich Obrey)

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: