Starting with a Bingham house that’s been home to six generations and the pictures recording their lives, Jon Hall put the images together with the glue of memory to produce “The Upper Kennebec Valley,” a recently released pictorial history and part of the Images of America series, published by Arcadia Publishing of Dover, N.H.
Hall is one of nearly 50 Maine authors who has spent months piecing together collections of old photos that depict the history of places held near and dear. The series covers a large number of communities, tourist attractions and historic areas. The books, with their trademark sepiatone covers, are a popular item at Maine bookstores and gift shops.
Inspired by the “phenomenal success” of a similar series in the United Kingdom, publisher Alan Sutton began the Images of America series in the United States. Nearly 200 regional Images of America books have been published or are in the works through the company’s offices in New Hampshire and Charleston, S.C. So far, three regions, New England, Mid-Atlantic and the South, are included in the series.
The books offer reminiscences to older people and revelations for the young, responding to the growing interest across the country in rediscovering and capturing local heritage.
In his book, Hall attempted to capture “things that don’t look like that anymore.” Through pictures, he has preserved the logging and sporting camp legacies of the Upper Kennebec River Valley along with the simple rural lifestyle of many of its families. Gravel roads and waterways are mainstays of the pictures that capture the region’s images from before the turn of the century to the 1950s.
“There was a lot of material and photos and individuals willing to loan their collections that made this possible,” Hall said. “There’s not a lot of published material on that area.”
Like many authors in the Images series, Hall has more than a casual interest in history. His interest in the 19th century, especially its cultural history, is a pastime that involved him in many historical organizations. He participates in a 19th century brass band, much like that pictured in front of his ancestral home on page 63 of his book. His “Centennial Brass Band” performs special historical concerts. Before the Images series, he worked on a similar book for the Waterville bicentennial.
The authors of Images books fit no single description. They include historians, teachers, graduate students, historical societies and institutions as well as hobbyist historians.
In Skowhegan, a committee is compiling photos for a pictorial history of the Somerset County shiretown. Town Manager Patricia Dickey is working with the Skowhegan Camera Club, town planner Tom Marcotte, History House curator Bill Laney and Evelyn Bowman to piece together an Images book as a benefit for the History House and the Opera House renovation project.
“It’s a long process, and it’s not complete. It’s taking longer than we expected. It should be published early next year,” Dickey said. “We have a tremendous amount of historical buildings here [to record with photos].”
Arcadia is not a vanity press. The authors or organizations compiling the books do not pay to have their work published. They earn royalties on all sales. Many organizations working on the books use them as fund-raisers for special projects.
One book depicts Margaret Chase Smith and her connection to her hometown of Skowhegan using a collection of photos from the Margaret Chase Smith Library and others.
Many of Maine’s cities and tourist destinations have been captured in the Images books.
Richard Shaw of the Bangor Daily News editorial staff has four Images books to his credit and is working on another. The most recent is “Bangor Vol. II,” a follow-up to his very successful “Bangor Vol. I” in 1994. The first Bangor volume was the best selling in the series, he said. Shaw’s other books include “Around Ellsworth & Blue Hill” and “Lower Penobscot River Region.” A collection called “Around Brewer” is in progress.
“They’re very nice people to work with,” Shaw said of Arcadia Publishing. “They give you free reign, within certain parameters. It’s not too labor-intensive. People are quite happy to share their pictures and along with it come stories.”
The hundreds of pictures Shaw collects must be “winnowed” down to about 200.
“I have about three piles of pictures on my dining room table,” Shaw said. “Some are just so good you have to use them. People make good pictures 99 percent of the time, in action, parades, interesting faces or dignitaries.”
Poring over old pictures is therapeutic for Shaw, a way to relax.
“I work with words all day,” he said. “This is like looking at the past through photography. We don’t know what the future holds, but the past will always be there. I love history and to have it come alive instead of packed away in someone’s attic.”