Stan Howe closes a chapter at Bethel Historical Society
“I turned down the job three times. Finally I said I’d do it for the summer. That was 38 years ago,” said Stan Howe.
Howe, who served for decades as Bethel Historical Society’s executive director, officially retired Dec. 31 from an organization that had 50 members when he took over in 1974.
During those years the society has grown to more than a thousand members and has doubled its Broad Street properties.
Howe’s lifelong interest in history is partly genetic.
“You couldn’t escape it,” the Bethel native said. “My parents and my grandparents were both history-minded.”
From an early age Howe had a particular fascination with old photographs. “I loved looking at photos,” he said. He remembers a particular one – still a favorite – of an oat threshing operation at Bean’s Corner in East Bethel in the early 20th century.
In school, his favorite subjects were history, writing and geography. “I studied maps all the time,” he remembers.
After graduating from Gould Academy in 1962, Howe went on to Gorham State College (now the University of Southern Maine), where he double majored in history and English. It was a great experience, he said.
“There were five historians in that department. They all become lifelong friends,” he said.
He next took advantage of a tuition-free master’s program at the University of Connecticut, where Harvard history professors also lectured. “I got an Ivy League education at a public university,” he said.
From there it was on to the University of Maine for a Ph.D. in Canadian history. His ultimate goal: become a college professor.
Howe was working on his dissertation in early 1974 when Margaret Joy Tibbetts, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the eight-year-old Bethel Historical Society, called to tell him about a project.
The William Bingham II Trust for Charity had recently purchased and restored the historic Moses Mason House on Broad Street, with the plan to present it to the BHS. Sidney Davidson, a leading member of the Bingham Trust, had spearheaded the effort.
Tibbetts asked Howe to become the curator for the society and establish it in the new building.
He said “no” three times. But then Tibbetts told him, “’unless we get someone soon, the project will be in danger,’” Howe remembers.
So he agreed to do it for the summer, provided he could continue work on his dissertation.
The dedication of the house was scheduled for July, and among the many tasks was gathering at least 100 historical items from the early through the mid-1800s and having them ready for display.
Although the house had been restored, there was very little in the way of furnishings, Howe said.
“I didn’t realize what I was getting into. But Sidney helped me immensely,” he said, and Tibbetts worked closely with him.
They also coordinated with a committee to gather and organize items.
“We went to a lot of the early families and asked them to donate. We did a lot of visiting,” said Howe.
They collected sofas, chairs, tables and many other items.
The dedication took place on time, with band music and coverage by the Boston Globe newspaper.
And Howe’s job extended well beyond that summer. With the help of a legion of volunteers and donations from a growing membership, he began to build the society into a regional organization.
“I immediately saw that we had things from Albany, Mason, Hanover, Newry and other towns. My vision was to have a regional society,” he said.
Howe and the society published books and compiled historic and genealogical records.
In 1986 historian Randy Bennett became a full-time staff member. They offered lectures and other educational programs and set up small exhibits in the Mason House barn.
In 1999, the BHS purchased a building adjacent to Moses Mason, the Robinson House, from the Bethel Inn. The added space allowed the society to expand its operations.
“We had the mortgage paid off within two years,” said Howe.
While Howe did not reach his original goal of becoming a full-time college professor, he did find opportunities to teach history part-time at Gould Academy and several colleges and universities.
And with much of his teaching taking place at the society, where area students often come through on tours, “I’ve been able to teach everyone from fifth-graders through graduate students,” he said.
His philosophy has been the same at all levels.
“‘History’ has the word ‘story’ in it,” said Howe. “History is telling stories. That’s the way I’ve always taught it.”
For example, at BHS he brought in elderly residents to talk to school children about their memories of old-time activities.
One day, he said, an octogenarian he had enlisted to talk to some youngsters about logging operations of the past worried about what he should say. “Just let them ask you questions,” Howe responded.
That method worked so well that when the time came for the kids to get on the school bus, neither they nor the senior logger wanted to leave each other.
Howe also used the example of allowing students to hold a Civil War bullet that was on display in an exhibit. The bullet had been removed from a soldier’s body 20 years after he was wounded in the Battle of Antietam. “I try to make history as tangible as possible,” said Howe.
With the addition of the Robinson House, BHS has devoted more time and effort to its exhibitions. Howe has some favorites, including the agriculturally-themed “Barn Again,” a Smithsonian exhibition that was provided to the society in 2005 through the Maine Humanities Council. It featured the history, construction and function of various types of barns.
To introduce the exhibition, the society enlisted the help of Piglet, the pig from Pooh Corner Farm in Gilead.
“People really got excited about that,” Howe said. “Piglet roamed all over my lawn (next door to the Mason House) and dug a hole to lie in.”
The pig was so popular that Howe brought her back for the society’s annual meeting. While the attendees visited outside at Howe’s house, the dessert table started to sway. Piglet was underneath scratching her back against the legs.
“It’s little things like that that make it so much fun,” he said.
So did the surprises any day could bring.
“You get up and plan your day, and then someone arrives. You’d never know who was going to show up, or what questions you would be asked,” said Howe.
He remembers one gentleman who came in search of genealogical information. “I knew all about his grandmother,” said Howe. “It’s Mom and Pop history – a real personal touch.”
Not long afterward the man made a generous donation to the society and became a member.
It’s those kind of personal contacts that have helped keep the society running through the years.
“When we wondered how we were going to pay the bills, someone always came to the rescue,” said Howe.
He remembers one year when a water pipe in the Moses Mason House broke, and the price to fix it was going to be about $1,000.
“I went down to the Post Office to get the mail, and there was a check for $1,000,” he said.
It was pure coincidence.
“It was perfect timing, and there have been so many times that has happened,” he said. “We’ve been very lucky. People have been so good to us.”
Besides generous monetary contributions, Howe also gives great credit to BHS volunteers.
“We’ve had lots of wonderful help from the volunteers. I look back on them so fondly,” he said.
Since Bennett succeeded him as executive director in 2010, Howe has served as associate director/director of education & research. His formal retirement this week, he said, simply signals he will join the ranks of the volunteers.
With the title of “Executive Director Emeritus,” he will continue to be involved in fundraising and grant writing, as well as work on a biography of William Bingham II.
Howe will also be available to serve as a go-to resource for the staff.
“I’ll be the institutional memory,” he said.