James Kences is dressed like a British redcoat to protest to relocation of the Old York Historical Society's archives to nearby Kittery. Credit: Rich Beauchesne | The York Weekly

YORK, Maine — Local historian James Kences is mounting a one-man public protest this fall and winter over the Old York Historical Society’s decision to transfer its archives to Kittery next May — in hopes of bringing public awareness to the impending move and perhaps find a solution so the archives will stay put.

Kences is planning to stand by the soldier’s monument as many days as possible throughout the winter, dressed in the red coat of the British 10th Regiment of Foot, a Revolutionary War reenactment group that he joined more than 40 years ago. He will carry placards that give information about the pending move and that stress that they must remain in town.

The archives are currently contained in what was once a bank vault at the OYHS offices in downtown York Village, which has been sold. OYHS intends to move administrative offices to the Elizabeth Perkins House in the spring and the archives to its curatorial center in Kittery. The archives contain numerous original documents, including diaries, that York families have donated over the years to the Old York Historical Society.

“Let’s take some actions before May,” Kences said. “If we let people know, there may be some solutions we can’t see at this point. The fact is, York — by virtue of its remarkable history over four centuries — is the most important town in Maine, the acorn from which the great tree was to grow. The town’s historical heritage is as precious and as fragile as the most crucial conservation land. And everything must be done with constant vigilance to ensure the heritage remains intact.”

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If the vigil effort sounds familiar, it should. Kences, who has a high-functioning learning disability on the autism spectrum, mounted a similar placard-carrying vigil three years ago when he protested an impending move from York tied to his federal disability payments.

The protest worked in that instance, when Bagel Basket owner Sean Mitchell offered an apartment above the eatery. Kences is using much of the same tactics now, hoping that by drawing attention to the issue, a solution can be found.

Since 2015, Kences has offered numerous discussions about York’s history at well-attended sessions at the library, he’s written about two dozen columns for the York Weekly and he has mounted other public events.

He came before the Board of Selectmen last week, seeking its approval to put a nonbinding referendum on the ballot that would gauge public sentiment about keeping the archives in York.

But selectmen said they didn’t think a townwide vote was necessary, because they were willing to partner with OYHS and the York Public Library to come up with a solution. For instance, the town needs document storage itself when a new town hall or annex is built, and maybe there’s some “synergy” around putting all documents in one place, said Town Manager Steve Burns.

“Short term, they’re going to move it to Kittery,” said Burns. “There’s no avoiding that. By the time Old York moves out of that building, we will have no place suitable for that archive. But long term, the town I believe has an obligation to the heritage of the town to see if we can do something.”

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But Kences said he doesn’t want to wait until some future time to bring the archives back. He doesn’t want them going to begin with.

“I can’t stand compromises. I’m not by nature designed for this nonsense,” he said. “This town deserves the very best treatment of its history. Many donations of family papers which compose the archival collections were supplied, I believe, with the expectation that the recipient organization would prove to be a responsible guardian and that the town’s heritage is a priority.”

Old York Director Joel Lefever said he applauds Kences’ efforts to draw attention to the archives, “because what it points out is how Old York is funded, and how we’re able to serve the community with the resources we have.”

Because it is a private organization, he said, he and the board have had to make “tough decisions” about how to make do with the funding it has. He said the library, for instance, receives some taxpayer money, and taxpayers also support York Land Trust purchases, “but Old York doesn’t get any money from the town.” As a result, the board made a number of decisions to properly care for its holdings, he said, to include selling the Village building. The curatorial collection moved to their Kittery facility, the former Kittery Family Practice building, some years ago and there is room for the archives, he said.

“It’s encouraging that James is focusing attention on this. It is one of those things people don’t realize is an issue. I think it’s hugely positive to start discussions about it, no matter where it leads,” Lefever said.

But Kences looks to the OYHS bylaws, which state the organization “shall be located in the town of York.” And to him, that means the archives need to stay in town — even if that means rethinking existing OYHS holdings like putting the documents at the George Marshall Store, which is now an art gallery but once housed the archives.

He said he will continue his vigil “until I see the town respond. Until the town reaches Bastille Day rage!” he said with an ironic laugh. “I’ve tried to be reasonable, but there’s a sense of urgency now.”

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