BATH — The Bath area is rich in history. From the original Popham Colony to the factory-like production of destroyers at Bath Iron Works during World War II, there’s a never ending supply of topics for history buffs to dive into in the City of Ships and the surrounding communities.

One of the places those history buffs can delve into that history is the Patten Free Library’s History Room. Officially named the Sagadahoc History and Genealogy Room, the History Room is located on the library’s second floor. The room, opened 40 years ago, houses countless books, documents, artifacts and maps that bring Bath’s history to life.  Forty years after Barbara King launched the History Room, it’s home to a vast collection of letters, mementos, maps, papers, books and photographs tracing an array of Bath’s history.

Those who found history class a bit dry or never could keep track of the names of generals and dates of battles in the Civil War, there’s no need to feel intimidated, according to Robin Haynes, the room’s current manager. One myth Haynes would like to dispense with is that the History Room is a stodgy place full of facts and figures, and long lists of who begat whom. Sure, those materials are there, but there are also dozens of first-person accounts and mementos that bring the people who lived in Bath back to life.

In one collection donated by Henry Baker, readers can find snapshots of people’s lives in the 19th century, from a woman expressing concern with her mother-in-law’s dementia, to an awkward marriage proposal, to a school boy writing to his brother to tell him how he traversed Bath via sled with his friends.

“What he’s doing is sledding around Bath in a way that he doesn’t have to walk uphill,” said Haynes, laughing. “But when they were going down South Street, they were all on the bobsled and it was going a little too fast and they crashed into a fence.”

“They’re not the dry ‘I’m fine. How are you?’ We’re going around town crashing our bobsleds into places,” she added. “It’s a wonderful way to look into everyday life.”

Haynes moved on to read from an 1814 letter written by a young Bath teenager named Lucinda Hathorn during the War of 1812.

“We are all in confusion my dear sisters. We are every hour expecting the enemy to attack us as they have not yet afrightened me out of town,” wrote Hathorn. “If half of my letters are put upside down and the other half backward, you must not wonder for my head is filled with the sound of drums and fifes. The town rings with them, and there are regiments and companies continually marching by.

“I could not believe mankind was so numerous. Nor could I have believed they’d appear half so well,” she added coyly.

“There’s part-teenager speaking there, part-grown woman,” said Haynes.

Of course, for those who want to get into the nitty gritty of genealogy and history, the History Room has that too. Former History Room Manager Peter Goodwin points to a large tome, filled with page after page of carefully organized handwritten notes, detailing generations of families in Bath.

“Dr. Alfred Holt hand-did all this. I think it’s our most unique and valuable resource,” said Goodwin.

Holt started the project as a genealogy of 10-15 families, but it ballooned into an in-depth record of more than 500 families from Bath, all in delicate, handwritten notes. If you have an ancestor from Bath in the 19th Century, there’s a good chance they’re recorded in that book.

“When people come in saying, ‘My great grandmother lived in Bath in the 19th century,’ I say, ‘Oh, OK.’ And there’s a very good chance I’m going to find her in Holt,” said Haynes. “He’s not only very careful, he cites his references.”

“It’s very cool, and very few libraries have something like that,” she added.

While the Holt documents are an excellent starting ground for would be genealogists, the rooms cemetery records, vital records and directories can help fill out family histories.

“One of our other great resources is the SPI surveys,” said Haynes.

Conducted by Sagadahoc Preservation Inc. in the 1970s, the surveys document historic homes in Bath. They include who lived in the homes, how old the house was and any valuable details. The South End survey, which was conducted more recently, includes every home in the south end at the time.

More visual learners can trace the development of Bath through the room’s multiple maps, or look through the many photographs on hand. The room also contains more than 1,300 postcards, which visitors can look at to get an idea of how downtown Bath looked a century ago.

Old Sanborn Insurance Maps, which were produced to give guidance to insurers, can give Bath homeowners valuable insight into what their home may have looked like more than a century ago, or what what industrial chemicals might have been stored near or on their property decades ago.

The History Room also boasts a large collection of stereographs. The stereograph cards feature two photos of the same location, each from a slightly different angle. When placed on a stereoscope, the images produce a 3D effect that makes viewers feel like they’re standing in the middle of old Bath.

“There was 3D more than 100 years ago,” said Haynes, who’s been collecting the images before she even started working with the History Room, and has stereographs with sights all over the world.

While visitors are free to sift through the enormous collection of books, documents and maps to learn about Bath on their own, perhaps the best way to get a feel for the past is speaking with Haynes herself. It seems each documents or factoid comes with a story attached, and with the slightest prompt Haynes can regale visitors with information they never could have found on their own, weaving together several books and letters into a cohesive whole that leaves the listener excited and eager to dig deeper.

THE HISTORY ROOM’S HISTORY
Barbara King launched the room after the library hired her in 1977.

“She said when she came and looked around she wanted to changes some things,” said Haynes, who has been the manager since 2013. “She wanted the library to have telephone service and a copier. She wanted them to have a more serious reference area. She wanted them to have periodicals. And she thought there should be a history room, because she was amazed that an area that had so much history didn’t have a local history room.”

The library had historical collections before that, but it was only after King came along that the library organized the items and set them aside in a designated space.

The library gathered the items it had accumulated over the years to the tower in the library, setting up a small section manned by volunteers and one part-time employee.

The History Room has since moved, relocating to the new wing of the library. Part of the reason for the move was space — even then their collections had grown significantly — but also because they wanted a room with air conditioning to help preserve historical documents.

“She has carried us into another world,” said Goodwin of his successor. “Whereas I would have said, ‘We got some letters from so and so,’ but she gets so wrapped up in the individual stories. That makes them a lot more interesting and valuable.”

“I like to weave them together,” said Haynes.

That understanding that history is best communicated by people in conversation rather than in dead trees is possibly the source for the History Room’s most popular programming: The Town History Series. The Town History Series is an annual event which Goodwin launched in 2005, where volunteers come and give presentations on the history of Bath and the surrounding towns.

“It’s been a very valuable thing for the library because it stresses the towns that the library is supported by,” said Goodwin. “It makes it more than just Bath’s library.”

Each lecture packs the upstairs room of the library as residents come early to get the best seats. Recognizing the unique value of the oral presentations, the library films the lectures, preserving them for later generations.

Goodwin is also a frequent face at the History Room, where he continues to work part time and offer his insights from more than 10 years as manager. In addition to the dedicated efforts of Goodwin, Haynes and past managers, the History Room’s draws its vitality from the many volunteers over the years who’ve dedicated countless hours to preserving documents, organizing collections and transcribing page after page of handwritten letters. The Town History Series recognizes that value, giving the community a chance to offer their own takes on the area’s history and to show off the human efforts to understand and explain it.

“As manager of this room, I think of that Town History Series as my major accomplishment,” said Goodwin. “And then hiring Robin.”