“Treasures in the Vault”

Outdoor Heritage Museum
Outdoor Heritage Museum in Rangeley, Maine

Interview with Bill Pierce, Executive Director of Rangeley Lakes Historical Society

Nothing can dampen Bill Pierce’s enthusiasm for sharing Rangeley’s history – not even a global pandemic that upends an entire year of careful planning. His passion fuels the Rangeley Lakes Historical Society (RLHS), where he serves as Executive Director. I visited Bill Pierce just as RLHS opened its museums for the 2020 season. Here is an edited transcript of our discussion.

So, what’s new?

We have new exhibits at both the Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc and the Rangeley History Museum in downtown Rangeley. (That’s the key to success for museums – changing things up so people always have a reason to visit.)

At the Outdoor Heritage Museum, we have an exhibit of vintage maps dating back to 1781, and a newly enhanced Carrie Stevens exhibit with the largest collection in the world of her original flies. They are now featured in a display case that allows visitors to view them up close to better appreciate their detail and craftsmanship.

At the Rangeley History Museum in downtown Rangeley, we’ve refurbished the Rangeley Lake Hotel exhibit, displaying new artifacts from the “Grand Hotel” era. We also have a great new Sandy River & Rangeley Lakes narrow-gauge railroad exhibit with a working model train and numerous artifacts from its colorful history.

Bill Pierce, Rangeley Lakes Historical Society, Rangeley History Museum
Bill Pierce and the Captain Haley bird egg collection at Rangeley History Museum

We’re finding amazing treasures in the vault that have been painstakingly preserved by those who loved the place before us. If you have not seen Captain Haley’s Egg Collection, we urge you to visit. It is a fascinating old collection of carefully preserved bird eggs, with everything from loon and songbirds to passenger pigeon eggs.

A quick hint about RHM; the basement gallery is at least 15 degrees cooler than the temp on the street and has lots of “cool” stuff to see. After years focusing a great deal of effort on making the Outdoor Heritage Museum the success that it truly is (although we are not done by any stretch), we’re excited to turn some of our attention to the Rangeley History Museum. The place is a hidden gem and its free to visit!

How has the COVID19 pandemic impacted your work?

We had such great momentum coming into 2020. We’ve never been more prepared in both museums – new exhibits, staff, interns and numerous events and programs, all ready to go. COVID forced us to change our plans, but that’s alright. History teaches us to think about the long-term. Everything we’ve accomplished will live on. In the short-term, we adjusted our budget to plan for the worse while still hoping for the best.

Do you know anything about Rangeley during the 1918 flu epidemic?

We don’t have any direct records of the flu’s impact here, but we know that people who could afford to do so, came here and rented remote camps to escape the big cities and quarantine. Many were already spending their summers here to avoid the heat and poor air quality that plagued the cities during the industrial revolution, so Rangeley was a logical place to go to escape the pandemic of 1917-18.

What’s your favorite new artifact?

That is almost impossible to say, but just this week we found an 1857 map of the Richardson Lake region. It is small but incredibly special. It shows the land George Richardson (for whom Richardson Lake is named) bought from the State of Massachusetts. In 1832, he bought 24,000 acres surrounding the lake for 12¢ per acre ($2,956.00). That is roughly $88,000 dollars in today’s money for some of the most beautiful forest land in Maine! What a deal!

Vintage map exhibit at Outdoor Heritage Museum
Vintage map exhibit at the Outdoor Heritage Museum in Oquossoc

At the time, Upper Richardson was known by its native name, “Mollychunkamunk,” and Lower Richardson was called “Welikennebacook.” The map is the first to identify them as “Richardson’s Lake.” It shows many features that most people don’t know about, such as the old buckboard trail connecting it to the first Magalloway settlers and the channel indicating the rapids that used to exist above Upper Dam.

We also have a map that was recovered from a dumpster in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Massachusetts. It was discarded from an old home that was being renovated. A construction worker found it and brought it to us. It is an 1822 canvas map by Moses Greenleaf and is one of only four copies known to exist. It shares how mysterious and uncharted the area truly was with basically just the major lakes roughed in. It’s a priceless Maine artifact and just one of many that we have. Our collections now contain many truly special pieces that tell fabulous stories and we are certain many more are out there. We don’t have to own them to share them… so loans of artifacts are just as welcome as donated ones.

What will these museums look like five years from now?

Well, I’ll probably be retired then. I have a long list of things I would love to do before that time comes, but I can’t share them just yet. My Board is awesome, and they are doing more to help us achieve our mission than at any time since I have been involved. We’ll see what we can accomplish in the next five years or so, and whatever that looks like, I know it will be special and a true team effort that will leave the sharing and preservation of the region’s history in great shape.

Rangeley History Museum
Rangeley History Museum

This is the best job I have ever had, and I have been blessed to have had some great positions in my 63 years. This role seems to take up most of my time, but it is such a blast. I once overheard my wife, Rhonda, tell a friend, “Bill doesn’t have a job. He has passion and hobby that happens to give us a paycheck”. Sharing history is easy when you’re in a region with such a rich legacy. There is just so much to work with. This is such an amazing place with amazing people. I think that it has always been special and part of keeping it special is keeping its history relevant and part of the brand and culture it enjoys.

What is your favorite part of your job?

I enjoy building exhibits, the research, and then sharing the stories behind what people are looking at. I also really love working with the interns we have had, watching their professional growth, and seeing where they go from here. One is now at the Maine State Library, one went to the Portland Observatory, another worked for the Farmington Historical Society. We’ve been fortunate to work with some very talented young people.

Our current intern is Avery Boucher. He is the kind of young man who gives you hope about the future. He works hard and is very dedicated. He is multi-talented, has a great sense of humor and people like him the minute they meet him because he is genuine. After we hired Avery, I learned he has a second-degree black belt in Tae kwon do, so we have also upgraded the museum’s security department.

How can people get involved this summer?

Folks can call to arrange “work behind the scenes” anytime. We have work on collections, artifact preservation and cataloguing, light carpentry and painting and projects outside at both museums, so we have work where folks can help and still be safe. If folks want to pitch in, we need the help, so I hope they please call 864-3091 or stop by the Outdoor Heritage Museum. 

We can always use volunteers and we really value their work. If anyone is interested in chipping in, we will find a safe way for them to do it.

Thanks, Bill.

Many thanks to Bill Pierce for his time for this interview and for all he does to share and preserve Rangeley’s history. His energy, passion, and talent is very much appreciated.

Click here for links and directions to Rangeley’s museums and other attractions.

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