Gathered around the big kitchen table during a recent “cousins’ lunch” are, from left: Connie Johnson, Chip Black, Melinda Richter, Gerry York, Laurie Smith and Beth York. The group is in the process of incorporating as the Harpswell Islands Genealogy and History Center. (Doug Warren photo)
Talk about getting a blast from the past!
The folks gathered around the big rectangular table in the kitchen of Connie Johnson’s home on Bailey Island are ignoring the spectacular view of Pond and Ragged islands from the picture window. Instead, they are sharing the rapid-fire, affectionate banter and inside jokes common among family members while oohing and aahing over a large image of nearby Mackerel Cove from the 1930s displayed on the table.
It’s a Wednesday afternoon and this is the “cousins’ lunch” that has become a fixture for a group of actual cousins — Gerry York, Laurie Smith, Melinda Richter, Chip Black, Beth York and Connie Johnson — for the last four years. That core group evolved from a similar gathering that was known as the “80s group,” based on the ages of the participants, and included Connie Johnson and her late husband, Ed. All are drawn by a deep, shared interest in the history of the islands, and the cousins’ group is usually supplemented by a revolving cast of friends and neighbors while meeting most Wednesdays throughout the year, when schedules permit.
“We enjoy each other’s company,” explained Smith. “We also love to talk about our shared history, document it, keep it alive, and, hopefully, pass it on to help keep our family and our community together.”
The lunch sessions, which Gerry York describes as “usually a free-for-all,” with members bringing in old photos to share, identify and scan into the group’s computer, are becoming a bit more formal. The cousins are incorporating as the Harpswell Islands Genealogy and History Center and plan to seek status as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit when that process is complete.
Gerry York, who has developed a detailed genealogy database for many island families, has also started a popular new Facebook group, Harpswell Yesterdays, which posts numerous photos from the past and is closing in on 2,000 members since launching in March. “It’s gratifying to see how many people are interested in the same things that fascinate us,” he said. A website for the organization is in the works.
In addition, the group has recently held two events, with more reportedly in the works. A talk by Gerry York, entitled “A Photo Journey Through the Harpswell Islands,” drew a capacity crowd to the Orr’s Island Library in June, according to Librarian Anne Wilkes. And the Harpswell Islands Geneaology and History Center arranged a benefit showing of Joe Goldman’s documentary “Fishermen of Mackerel Cove” at the Orr’s Island Schoolhouse in late July.
According to the center’s mission and vision statement, it seeks to “build relationships among individuals, organizations and the community to enhance the understanding of our collective historical experience in the various villages that make up Harpswell and Casco Bay.”
As part of that effort to foster relationships with other organizations, several members of the group have reached out to the Harpswell Historical Society, and have met several times with its president, David Hackett. “I think what they’re doing is a good thing,” he said. “But it shouldn’t overshadow the Historical Society. We have a lot of stuff from all parts of town and that’s the way it should be, as I think.”
The core members of the Harpswell Islands Genealogy and History Center say they look forward to working with Hackett and the Historical Society. “We want to have a good working relationship with them,” said Beth York. “Island history is a passion of ours and the result of us working together will be great for everyone.”
If people have photographs they want to share, or seek information about, Gerry York suggests they post to the Harpswell Yesterdays Facebook group or contact him via email. “Someday, we might need to find a location with a secure repository,” he said. “Maybe two or three computers with genealogy software and a picture archive we can add to. Or a commercial storage pod with a heat pump that could travel with us. But that’s down the road a piece.”
For now, most of the action remains centered around that big table in Johnson’s kitchen. On a recent Wednesday, Black entertained the small gathering with tales of picking prodigious amounts of blackberries as a youth out on Ragged Island, clearly visible to the east. He recalled greeting the Sifton family, the island’s owners, with big pails that always went home full of delicious berries. “It was hard to land on the island,” he said, “but the trip was always worth it.”
Then the conversation shifted to the site of the small shack where Micmac basket weaver Joe Knockwood, who died in 1964, made and sold his wares, which today are highly collectible. After a fair amount of back-and-forth, it was determined to be around the bend in Route 24 to the north of the present-day location of Richter’s Orr’s Island Candy Co.
Proving, once again, to put a twist on William Faulkner, that the past is never dead. In fact, it may be just around the corner.
To contact the Harpswell Islands Genealogy and History Center, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doug Warren, of Orr’s Island, retired from a career as an editor at the Portland Press Herald, Miami Herald and Boston Globe. He serves as vice president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.