The Preservation of Local History? …Priceless

A Dover, N.H. historian puts things in their place…

Thom Hindle–photographer, historian and collector from Dover, N.H.

There are places on this planet where cities, tribes, societies, even entire cultures once stood, and then vanished without a trace.  Some civilizations were wiped out by war, disease or natural catastrophe, and all that remains are a few shards of ancient pottery, or some references passed down via word of mouth. As far as history goes, their existence may as well be a rumor.

But even here in the U.S. in this modern era, there are cities and towns where the history from even a hundred years ago is very limited, and in some cases barely exists.  There are instances where I’ve researched a town’s history to find out how it got its name, and there was nothing to find!  You can ask the current town officials, and you’ll get a blank stare. 

For one reason or another, the town didn’t have a person who managed to take the time and effort to memorialize its people, and their contribution to the world. But fortunately, most communities are blessed with at least one person who recognized that local history is a treasure to be valued greatly, and that if time passes without that history being recorded, it will vanish forever.

One such person is Thom Hindle of Dover, New Hampshire.  He is a professional photographer by trade, but he has become the unofficial town historian, and local preserver of the past for decades. He has had help from other collectors and local historians along the way who have also made Dover’s local history a priority.

For me, this is the piece de resistance in the Hindle collection. These are three advertising crocks that contained fresh oysters, and are rare as hen’s teeth. I’ve only seen them occasionally, and the trick is finding the one you need to complete the set of three sizes. The price fluctuates, but I’ve seen the small size example sell for $400 in the past, and I’ve never seen either of the two larges examples available for sale, and will have to assume they would bring an even higher price!

Dover, N.H., is one of America’s earliest towns, dating back to 1623! Thom has hunted down and acquired collectible items from Dover’s history since the 1960s. I visited him recently to view his amazing collection, and to help appraise the value of his Dover embossed medicine bottles.  I asked him how he got started on this labor of love:

“….I grew up in Dover in the 1950s when the downtown was mom & pop family run retail stores and restaurants. Much like it was during the mill days in the early 1900s. I left in 1964 to study business and photography. After spending time on the West Coast/Los Angeles, and teaching photography at the Army Signal School in New Jersey, I returned to Dover in the middle of what I called ‘Urban Removal.’ Much of the old Dover I remembered was being torn down. I started documenting with my camera and tracking down the families of local photographers, in an attempt to save their old negatives and cameras. I now own the works of a dozen New England photographers and over 100,000 negatives, mostly early glass plates.

[Yes, you read that right, 100,000  glass plate negatives, all marked and dated, recorded for eternity, a snapshot in time of the evolution of Dover, as well as many other historic New England towns he has cataloged.]

At the same time, I purchased the home of Joseph Abbott who operated the Dover Ice Co. and sold granite and stone. He served as Dover’s police chief in the 1860s and fire chief in the 1880s, having a steam engine named after him when he died in 1901. In the barn, I found trunks with all the business records and many invoices and letters dealing with Dover businesses.”

If I went out metal detecting, and came up with one of these rare trade tokens, it would make my day, and I’d never sell it. So much history and information on one small token.

I’ve seen many of these old hand written invoices myself, business cards, and trade cards of these businesses, along with the early photos of their places of business, beautifully preserved and framed. In his studio, Thom has several glass cases displaying historical memorabilia matching actual photos of proprietors and their shops to the paper trail they left behind.

“These old documents started my search for more local businesses and I now have over two dozen large binders filled with invoices, letters and papers dating from pre-Civil War into the 1960s and present. I also became involved with helping to preserve local history through historic walks and programs, served a term as president of the historical society, and in 1998 when Dover celebrated 375 years as a settlement (N.H. being the oldest–1623), I was given the honor of ‘Citizen of the Year.’ As a commercial photographer, I have spent over 40 years photographing events, ribbon cuttings, presidential visits, business people, and removal of old buildings/changes being made, in addition to collecting early pieces of Dover’s business/retail & manufacturing history. I sometimes feel more connected with the businesses of the early 1900s than today’s through the pieces that I have collected and the old photographs.”

And along the way, he acquired all he could of historical Dover photos, and any piece of advertising or product clearly marked “Dover, N.H.” When you are the preeminent collector in any category of collectibles, you will find it challenging to recoup the money you’ve invested in the collection when it comes time to sell.

This is why many collectors tend to “downsize” their collection in phases over a few years, rather than cut the cord all at once. I’ve heard the analogy of “landing a jet plane that’s out of fuel,  gently in a wheat field, rather than crashing it into a mountain.” In both cases, the plane comes down to the ground, but one method is much less painful.

Early Dover N.H. policeman’s badge.

With Thom Hindle’s collection, he’s got a few things in his favor.  Yes, it’s a big collection, and he himself was one of the top drivers of the Dover, N.H. historical “market.” Without Thom as a current “buyer,” the demand naturally lessens. But what will work to his benefit is the diversity of the collection, and the number of categories of collectibles that are universally desirable. In addition, the quality, variety, and condition of these items are amazing. Thom explains,

“The advantage of having a diverse collection is that there will always be the pharmacy bottle collector, a medal-token collector, a milk bottle collector, an ephemera collector, etc. The disadvantage of collecting local town history is finding another person that is as passionate as you are, when it comes time to downsize and sell. When you have spent many years putting together a large souvenir china collection, or an assortment of local paper/ephemera, advertising items one piece at a time…you would like to see those collections remain together and not be spread out all over the country and broken up one piece at a time. You have spent a lot of time and money bringing local pieces home thru on-line auctions, and in your heart, as a collector and historian,  you want it all to stay local and together if at all possible.”

There is a good possibility that some of his collections will stay together, as local philanthropy may allow a purchase/donation arrangement to happen, which could keep them for view in local museum or displays in local prominent businesses. However, even if the collection is broken up to some extent, the collectibles world has changed since the advent of the internet.

Historical memorabilia in many great  collections are split up, and scattered around the world by people who will enjoy being stewards of them for a time, where they will be seen and preserved safely for generations to come.  And when someone is researching, or needs some local historical information, they can still get access to it online.

Can you imagine a local sole proprietor pharmacy, with its own paper advertising fan today?

Thom Hindle was able to do the hard work over the years, amassing these items and ephemera so that in a hundred years, or five hundred years, Dover, N.H., will have these riches of history, and a record of the people who settled, built and grew this historical seacoast town.  Our thanks to Thom Hindle, and all the rescuers of local history throughout our country. Your efforts will be appreciated literally, forever.


Bram Hepburn collects 19th-century New England bottles and glass, having spent the last 30 years digging and diving for bottles in New England and upstate New York. He has just founded an estate liquidation company and auction house, Hepburn and Co. Antiques in Eliot, Maine. You can send an email to him at askus@hepburnandcoantiques.com.

 

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