Viewpoint: Our stories fit together

By Bill Horner


I was born in 1941 at Mount Desert Island Hospital and graduated from Bar Harbor High School in 1959. As most of you readers know, there were three high schools on MDI in those days and competition in sports and for girls was pretty intense. I remember being thoroughly chastised for inviting a very attractive young lady from Mount Desert to my senior prom. I thought this was a major coup, especially since I was a terrible basketball player.

I didn’t know much about what was going on in towns outside Bar Harbor then, except that there were a lot of summer people in Northeast Harbor and a lot of fishermen in Southwest and on the outer islands. I went away to college and medical school.

I returned to my hometown in 1972 as a newly minted general surgeon and began to see patients from everywhere: Swan’s Island, Frenchboro, the Cranberries, Ellsworth, Downeast Maine and, of course, from every square inch of Mount Desert Island.

By then the island had managed to consolidate the three high schools and I began to appreciate the true character of island residents and, despite differences in geography, how much we had in common.

People had really interesting stories to tell about their families and lives, many of which intersected with my own — and with “my” town. Rather than as separate villages and towns with separate histories, I began to understand that we were one very interesting community of islands, each of our stories fitting together.

I retired from surgery in 2007 and, having island roots, began to explore my family’s history and stories, many of them handed down orally and having taken on rather dubious if not mythic qualities.

I aspired to do research, discover the truth and write. This led me to a particular family member who became a community leader in 1880s Bar Harbor and subsequently had much to do with the formation of Acadia National Park.

His local interest had quickly translated to the regional. He lifted his eyes above the small town of Gouldsboro, where he was born, and saw the entire region from the tops of mountains. He saw Acadia not as a pretty island park but as a grand public resource, a gift to the country to be held in trust for the benefit of every American. He inspired me.

I wrote his story and in my search for truth found historical resources I had not previously imagined: people, collections, both private and public, and institutions.

The closer I got to completing my manuscript, the more suggestions of resources came in. Where was all this stuff? How could I access it?

I gathered a number of interested friends and we decided to form a collaborative, to be known as the Friends of Island History (FOIH). Included were Acadia National Park, the College of the Atlantic, the island libraries and museums, several historical societies, and individual collectors and historians. FOIH had a cordial if untested relationship.

Aside from the libraries, FOIH members had little to no history of collaboration. This was a very new idea. And given the old competition among towns, it wasn’t entirely clear that we completely trusted one another.

As we held these candid discussions, one essential philosophical point became clear: With regard to our institutional collections, we were stewards, not owners. We were, in effect, trustees — just as the founders of Acadia National Park called themselves, The Trustees of Public Reservations.

Then came the idea of a History Trust and further realizations. As an initial group of 11 organizations, the History Trust could support individual organizations’ efforts to maintain their autonomy, protect and catalog their collections, digitize them and create sophisticated metadata — a digital archive — so that they could be easily searched by scholars from fifth grade to graduate school and by the general public.

We could also tap numerous opportunities to economize and take advantage of synergies. Together, we could seek funding from hitherto untapped resources in the form of grants and enlightened private philanthropy.

In essence, we would be engaging our communities and schools in telling their stories and passing them on to future generations, preserved and improved.

To date the following organizations form the History Trust: Bar Harbor Village Improvement Association, Thorndike Library of College of the Atlantic, Great Cranberry Island Historical Society, Great Harbor Maritime Museum, Islesford Historical Society, Jesup Memorial Library, Maine Seacoast Mission, Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Seal Cove Auto Museum, Southwest Harbor Historical Society, and Tremont Historical Society.

The History Trust’s governing council has begun the strategic planning process that will establish clear goals and deliverables to achieve the organization’s mission and vision.

The group has defined the mission of the History Trust as the following: The stewards of Mount Desert Island regional collections, united as the History Trust, work together to improve collections care, enhance digital and physical access, and engage the public to better understand and use these essential, irreplaceable, historical and cultural resources.

The History Trust collaborative has been doing the hard work of creating an organization that can save the region’s archives, develop a common catalog so that anyone can see what is in them, engage young people and preserve and appreciate the rich histories that define this place to which we always return, the place we all call home.

For this native son, that is a dream fulfilled. That is progress!

Bill Horner is a retired physician and resident of Bar Harbor.

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