In an unassuming former house on Wilson Street, the history of Brewer is held in artifacts, records and photographs, but the nonprofit responsible for guarding the city’s 210-year history is facing a monumental challenge.
The Brewer Historical Society’s membership base and executive board have continued to age and shrink in recent years. The dwindling membership raises concerns about who will preserve and catalog the city’s history for future generations if the trend continues.
Only two members make up the society’s executive board, which has 11 seats, according to Susan Xirinachs, the historical society’s interim president.
Though the organization has roughly 65 members on its roster, only about 30 attended the organization’s monthly meetings prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Xirinachs, who has been involved with the historical society since the 1990s. Since the pandemic, the organization’s monthly meeting attendance has dwindled to about 10 members.
“There are a lot of people in Brewer who have always lived in Brewer but have never taken an interest in their city,” she said.
Of the members on the society’s roster, many are older, and the group is struggling to gain and retain new, younger members to continue overseeing it, said Brewer Mayor Michele Daniels, who acts as the liaison between the city and the organization.
“When it comes to not having people on the board, the tipping point hasn’t been reached yet, but it’s getting close to the tipping point if one more person goes,” Daniels said. “Everybody is in their 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. A good chunk are in their 80s and 90s at this point.”
What’s more, many live out of state or don’t have an email address or cellphone, so coordinating a gathering can be challenging, Xirinachs said.
Should the historical society fold, the city is at risk of losing more than access to its museum, said David Hanna, who acts as the organization’s treasurer and oversees its archives.
“If we don’t have a historical society, we lose track of our history,” said Hanna, who has been involved for 15 years. “This organization gives you a sense of place in time and you don’t want to be without a historical society.”
Founded in 1977, the historical society is headquartered at the Clewley Museum, an 1880 farmhouse on Wilson Street in Brewer. The home is decorated as it might have been in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and contains old military uniforms, artifacts from Brewer’s brickmaking, shipbuilding and ice harvesting history, and even a shoulder plate from Brewer native and Civil War General Joshua Chamberlain.
Filing cabinets and bookshelves containing records and more than 600 photos of Brewer line the walls of a small office behind the museum. Many of those documents haven’t been scanned to preserve and share them digitally. Because of this, someone from the historical society needs to comb through documents to uncover historical information a person may be seeking, such as details on their family, home or land, Daniels said.
In addition to holding the extensive records and photos of the people who lived and worked in Brewer, the nonprofit oversees Chamberlain Freedom Park on the corner of State and North Main streets, awards a $1,000 annual scholarship for a Brewer High School student, and runs the nonprofit’s register of historic places.
Xirinachs said she suspects younger people may believe they’re too busy to contribute to the historical society, either in a leadership role or as a member. Daniels said it doesn’t take a significant time commitment to help preserve Brewer’s history for future generations, and living in Brewer isn’t a requirement.
“It doesn’t matter where you live as long as you’re interested in history and want to bring the history into the future,” Daniels said. “It keeps the history of Brewer alive. It’s a great group of people to sit and talk to if you like history because they’re the living history of our city.”