With the immigrant grandparents of many Greek-Americans passing away every year, the Maine State Archives is looking to assemble all the Greek immigrants’ stories it can now — before it’s too late.
Decades ago, most immigrants to the Americas likely never dreamed anyone would want to know the stories of how they made it to the shores of the US, what their dreams were, what had prompted them to leave their homeland — and how hard those first years were.
But state libraries, immigrant associations and archives all over the US have now begun to assemble as much information as they can from these living repositories of history, including from the Irish and French Canadians.
Greek immigrants’ stories and documents to be preserved at Maine Historical Society
Two remarkable Philhellenes behind the creation of the Maine Hellenic Society think it’s high time that the stories of the Greek immigrants who came to Maine were collected so their histories too can be kept and preserved forever.
Dr. Irwin Novak, a professor of geology at the University of Southern Maine, and his wife Mary Snell, who have devoted much of their lives to furthering knowledge about and appreciation for Greece, are the main forces behind this drive, approaching the Maine Historical Society to establish a Greek archive there.
Greek Reporter spoke to Mary Snell this week regarding the recent creation of this historical resource. She lamented the fact that often, old papers from the past — and even photographs — “are the first thing to go” when people inherit items from their parents and grandparents.
She strongly urges all those who have old photographs of the first years of the Greek immigrant experience to Maine to photograph, or otherwise reproduce, these old photos and donate the originals to the new archive so that they can be professionally preserved forever.
Snell admits that in some cases, “we’re already too late” for much of this material, which is gone forever. But now, with more people realizing the importance of preserving the traces of our past, it is crucial to make sure that the irreplaceable images and documents that we still have will not be lost to the ravages of time.
For those who worry that their priceless memories will be lost to them after the originals are donated, Snell assures them that with the technology we have now, faithful copies of the photographs can be made — and you can even put those perfect copies of your irreplaceable family or church photos back in their original frames.
In addition, Snell tells Greek Reporter that those seemingly meaningless old programs from bygone activities, such as pageants and parades — which often have complete names of the people who took part in them — are valuable documents as well, and they need to be preserved just as much as the photographs do.
“These are just the kind of things that the Society loves,” Snell states, adding that scholars can use this information for their research in the future.
“The archive would be repository for the history of the community and items would be preserved and documented by the MHS,” Novak states.
“Otherwise, such documents remain at risk, stored in cardboard boxes subject to water damage, mold, insects and the like,” he warns.
Items for the archive, Snell and Novak say, can consist of any type of paper document, including letters, receipts, work logs, posters, program booklets, etc. Of course, photographs are especially important to keep for future generations. Anything that would depict Greek Independence Day or other Greek-themed festivities, along with church picnics and other get-togethers, are extremely valuable historical records of the Greek immigrants’ first years in the country.
Clothing, particularly historic costumes, could also be donated to the MHS so that they could be preserved in perpetuity — a daunting task for someone who is not knowledgeable in this area.
Snell tells Greek Reporter that it is important, however, to know that all the materials donated to the archive must be related to Greeks immigrating to Maine, and that they would become the permanent property of the MHS.
She adds that she is especially gratified that she can be involved in this brand-new initiative, but that the Maine Hellenic Society itself will not collect the items — all those who wish to donate must contact the Maine Historical Society directly.
Vamvakou villagers leave, reestablish community in Maine
As is the case for most American states, the Greeks who came to Maine emigrated from their homeland because of economic factors. After suffering from deprivation in Greece, they moved to the US, peddling groceries and opening shops. Known for their hard work, they quickly became part of the fabric of American society.
But Bangor, Maine, drew an unusual group of immigrants who were almost all from one town in Greece — Vamvakou, in the Peloponnesian county of Laconia, the famed land of Sparta. The small agricultural village was once the center of the currant industry; selling their fruit to Great Britain was the backbone of the entire economy of the region.
When a blight occurred in the currant crop in the 1890s, the economy was devastated. With nowhere else to turn, the people of Vamvakou felt they had no option but to emigrate to where they could reestablish themselves.
George N. Brountas was the first of the Vamvakou villagers to come to the US, working initially in the textile mills around Boston; however, he soon moved north, to the small but thriving community of Bangor in Maine.
After years of hard work — and smart business decisions — Brountas opened the first Greek-owned store in Bangor, called the ”Bangor Candy Kitchen.” It quickly became a local institution, and his fellow Vamvakou neighbors were quick to follow Brountas to Bangor, with family after family joining the “new Vamvakou” in Maine.
Stavros Niarchos, one of the most prominent Greek shipowners of all time, also helped make the construction of their church possible by donating funds, since he had relatives from Vamvakou who had left the village and headed to Maine.
Constructing their church in 1930, the Greeks quickly established themselves as one of the backbones of the community in Bangor, just as they had elsewhere in Maine.
As Novak says, it’s well past time to have all their photographs, letters and other documents preserved forever so that the memory of these brave immigrants will always be remembered.
A committee to organize such an archive has now been formed by volunteers from the four Greek parishes in the state, who are working alongside the MHS to make the archive a reality. For more information, please contact any member of this committee or Mary Snell at firstname.lastname@example.org.