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Deering clerk spearheads fundraiser to save historic documents

  • Deering town clerk nancy Cowan sorts through records dated from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the town hopes to digitize. The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Deering town clerk nancy Cowan sorts through records dated from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the town hopes to digitize. The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Deering town clerk Nancy Cowan reads from an 1826 liquor license that the town wants to digitize.  The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    Deering town clerk Nancy Cowan reads from an 1826 liquor license that the town wants to digitize. The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • A Deering ballot for te 1892 election (which pitted Grover Cleveland against incumbent Benjmin Harrison in the Presidential race) is one of the items the town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    A Deering ballot for te 1892 election (which pitted Grover Cleveland against incumbent Benjmin Harrison in the Presidential race) is one of the items the town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • A stack of boxes hold old records, deeds, minutes and other items that that the town of Deering hopes to digitize; Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

    A stack of boxes hold old records, deeds, minutes and other items that that the town of Deering hopes to digitize; Wednesday; February 27, 2013.

    (ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

  • Deering town clerk nancy Cowan sorts through records dated from the eighteenth and early nineteenth century that the town hopes to digitize. The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • Deering town clerk Nancy Cowan reads from an 1826 liquor license that the town wants to digitize.  The town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • A Deering ballot for te 1892 election (which pitted Grover Cleveland against incumbent Benjmin Harrison in the Presidential race) is one of the items the town of Deering is selling off old ballots, town annual reports and other odds and ends to help fund the digitization of old records it wants to keep. Photographed on Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)
  • A stack of boxes hold old records, deeds, minutes and other items that that the town of Deering hopes to digitize; Wednesday; February 27, 2013.<br/><br/>(ALEXANDER COHN / Monitor staff)

When Nancy Cowan and her co-workers at Deering Town Hall stumbled upon a cache of old documents earlier this winter, it didn’t take long for an idea to form inside Cowan’s head: Use a bit of history to preserve a bit more.

For years, Cowan, the town clerk and tax collector, has dreamed of digitizing and indexing hundreds of historic town records – everything from 19th-century liquor licenses to a 1793 handwritten warrant article – but money to fund the project has always fallen short.

“It’s here, and we’re fortunate to have it,” she said. “But we can’t use it, we can’t learn from it, we can’t enjoy it until we have it recorded in a safe preservation style.”

Cowan could have asked to have the project funded through a warrant item at this year’s town meeting, but she didn’t want to impose on residents, who are already being asked to fund a $750,000 road pavement project.

So this winter, when Cowan, her deputy, Sarah Gladu, and assistant, Carol Baker, were cleaning out the town’s archive room and came upon boxes of old documents of which the town already possessed copies, Cowan thought, “Why not hawk the duplicates and use the proceeds to fund the preservation project?” She approached the board of selectmen with the plan last month and received quick approval. She formed a committee with Gladu and Baker, and welcomed others to join. She also called the secretary of state’s office to ensure she wasn’t violating any rules, and she got approval on condition that she send the state two copies of the 1906 gubernatorial ballots now up for grabs.

Today, Cowan’s office is a mess of boxes containing items for sale – vehicle blue books from the 1970s, town reports from 1908, unmarked presidential ballots from 1892 (the year Grover Cleveland, a Democrat who had been unseated as president in 1888 by Benjamin Harrison, rebounded and beat Harrison).

The documents might not hold much value to anyone unfamiliar with Deering, but for those who live in the area or have historic family ties to the town, there will undoubtedly be genealogical and sentimental value, Cowan said. She grabbed an old town record and began flipping through a section containing birth, marriage and death notices.

“When you go back to 1900, you get the births and deaths people are researching, but you get more than that,” she said. “You get reasons why someone died. And when you look at a marriage nowadays, you don’t get people’s occupation. But back then you do. Look at that: ‘Teamster,’ ‘Farmer,’ ‘Laborer.’ ”

“1908 must have been a snow year,” she said. She pointed to a slew of identical reports from that year. “We must have had a blizzard or something, because people obviously weren’t there to pick up their town reports come March.”

The town has been accumulating the duplicate items for three decades – ever since the town clerk and board of selectmen started working out of actual public offices. Before that, Cowan said, they worked from home, and many of the old documents – the excess town reports, the unmarked ballots, the vehicle blue books – ended up in the closets of former officials or their descendants.

“People never got around to organizing it,” Cowan said. “When I started boxing things up, I found all this stuff that was wonderful history.”

So far, Cowan has managed to sell only a few items and most of those have been to people at her office. “I think I’ve bought the most things,” she said. “I bought a couple ballots. Bought a town report.”

Baker, who owns a 1974 BMW motorcycle, purchased one of the town’s blue books from that year and another from 1978 for her husband, who also rides.

Cowan’s fundraising total to date: $94.

But as small as that might seem, she is confident locals will take more of an interest once they hear more about it, and she plans to set up a table during the town’s election day, March 12, for people to purchase items.

The documents for sale are not priced very high – the 1892 presidential ballot is going for $25 – and Cowan said that the point of the sale, besides raising money, is to keep as many of the documents in the community. That’s partly why she chose to forego listing anything on an online auction site such as eBay.

“It’s not an auction to get as much as we can,” she said. “I would much rather get the information out to people who care about it, who cherish it.”

Cowan doesn’t have a fundraising goal yet. She said the committee plans to see how much it can raise and then reach out for advice from the historical society in Concord and the state library about how best to use the money. She didn’t rule out the possibility that the items they hope to preserve will one day be accessible online, but for now her goal is simply to get them digitized.

The types of documents the committee hopes to preserve varies. Yesterday, Cowan opened one box, marked “178?–1848”, and began leafing through its contents. Pages crinkled with age, and Cowan held a few of them up to the light and tried to decipher the looping cursive words. She read off a liquor license from 1826, a tax record listed in pounds and shillings, and the 1793 warrant article. In the past, Cowan said she has come across letters to the town and scores of old dog licenses. “Almost every dog had the same names: Rover, Prince, Rex and Lady,” she said.

Tom Copadis, the town historian, lauded Cowan’s effort, noting the importance of indexing the old documents to make it easier for residents and officials to locate and use them.

JP Marzullo, a selectman, also praised Cowan’s effort, saying it’s not easy for small towns with limited budgets to keep track of their history. He said he planned to drive to town hall later this week and purchase a gubernatorial ballot.

Cowan is hopeful she can sell most of the items by this summer, when some people with second homes in Deering will arrive for the summer season. By then, though, her role will become entirely voluntary; she retires next month. Which makes the project that much more special, she noted.

“It’s my swan song,” she said.

(Jeremy Blackman can be reached at 369-3319 or
jblackman@cmonitor.com.)

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