An early 20th Century, steam-powered vehicle makes its way across a Belfast street in the lower corner of an Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company glass-plate negative recently found in a Tenants Harbor attic. The image was donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum this week. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum

Lost history sometimes reappears in odd places. It also sometimes gets delivered back to the present via odd methods.

On a Rockland golf course, Wednesday, a man handed Penobscot Marine Museum Photo Archivist Kevin Johnson a heavy, gray-green milk crate brimming with long-lost Maine postcard negatives just rediscovered in a Tenants Harbor attic.

“They do travel well in the milk crates,” Johnson said. “They’ve got sturdy handles to hang onto and the bottom is not going to fall out on you.”

The 5-inch by 7-inch glass-plate negatives were made a century ago by Belfast-based Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company photographers as they criss-crossed Maine, New England and Upstate New York, making picture postcard images.

Johnson hasn’t had time to analyze all the fragile photographic plates yet, but a quick glance has revealed tantalizing images of York Beach, Crescent Beach (the one near Owls Head) and a picture of an early, steam-powered car parked on a Belfast street.

The company’s massive photographic archive was scattered decades ago and Johnson has spent the last 16 years trying to reunite the collection at the museum. The milk crate handoff is just his latest negative-recovery caper. Johnson’s adventures have included long drives, auction interventions, Ebay negotiations and laying his hands on a batch of stolen pictures missing since the 1980s.

Penobscot Marine Museum Photo Archivist Kevin Johnson holds a large, glass plate negative in his office on Friday, Aug. 25, 2023. The negative is one of dozens donated to the museum this week. Courtesy of Matt Wheeler

In 2021, Johnson raised $6,000 to buy a batch of 300 Eastern Illustrating negatives from an antiques dealer in Warren, Massachusetts. In 2011, with the help of historian Earl Shettleworth, Johnson recovered another stack of negatives just hours before they were to be put up for auction.

The museum’s current recovered negative count, not including the newest milk crate, stands at roughly 56,000 Eastern Illustrating images.

Johnson found about 21,000 of them himself and he’s not done looking. The problem is, nobody knows how many more are out there, waiting to be rediscovered.

“We have a good number of the salesman catalogs that once would have held a great number of all the views that Eastern had, but before those catalogs got to us, postcard dealers pulled out all the postcards. All we have are the empty catalogs,” Johnson said.

This week’s photographic treasure cache was donated by Maryland doctor Allen Durling, who also gave Johnson three milk crates full of Eastern Illustrating negatives more than a decade ago.

A Corinna church appears in an image made by an Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company photographer roughly a century ago. The image is one of dozens donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum this week. Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum

Durling picked them up at a series of auctions in Burnham in the 1980s and then asked Maine photo historian Deanna Bonner-Ganter to make prints from them. Years later, in 2010, when Bonner-Ganter heard Johnson was on the hunt for Eastern Illustrating negatives, she introduced him to Durling.

In a 2010 email, Durling told Johnson a little more about the negatives.

“I had to pay about $1,000 for the couple hundred I have,” Durling wrote. “The ones I really wanted are 32 (I think) plates from around 1905 or so of what are titled ‘Steamboat Series.'”

Durling said he wasn’t ready to part with them, though, as he had vague plans to perhaps write a book about the steamboat photos.

However, within a year, Johnson had convinced the doctor to donate his collection — along with Bonner-Ganter’s prints, to the museum. That’s when Johnson noticed some of the negatives were missing. There were more prints than negatives.

“So I wrote to him and said, ‘The negatives you’ve donated are amazing but it seems like you might still have more,'” Johnson said. “He said, ‘Oh that’s a possibility. I have five houses and stuff stored all over the place. I’m not sure what is where.'”

Unable to remember where the errant negatives were, Durling made Johnson a deal. He promised to put a note in his will directing his children to donate the missing negatives when they inevitably found them while cleaning out after his death.

Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.

Instead, Johnson got an email from Durling two months ago with the subject line “Happy Day.” Durling had found the negatives in a corner of the attic above his summer home in Tenants Harbor.

Glass plate negatives sit on a light pad at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. A milk crate of vintage plates were donated this week after being located in Tenants Harbor. Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum

“I’d kept in touch with him, once a year, as a reminder in case he found them,” Johnson said.

Included in the milk crate was a box of negatives marked Daigle, Maine. Inside were actually pictures from Monticello, Maine. That was fine with Johnson, as the museum already had the Daigle snaps but not the box.

Now, the two can be reunited for the first time in who-knows-how-long.

Photographer R. Herman Cassens founded Eastern Illustrating in 1909. He sent photographers to nearly every town and hamlet in Maine, documenting Main Streets, boats, docks, farms and businesses for the postcard trade.

Eastern Illustrating’s photographers used large, wooden, view cameras. The tripod-mounted contraptions produced 5-inch by 7-inch glass plate negatives. The images were then cropped to make 3-inch by 5-inch postcards that sold for two to five cents.

When Cassens started his business, telephones were not widespread. Postcards were a short, inexpensive way to communicate — the old-time version of a text message. At its peak, Eastern Illustrating produced over a million postcards a year.

The company survived after Cassens died in 1947 and eventually switched to color film for its postcards. The old negatives went into storage for decades. Each time the collection changed hands, more negatives would vanish, mysteriously ending up at auction houses or with dealers.

Now they’re considered priceless, as their historic value has been more properly assessed. Acting as windows into the past, they reveal visual secrets about Maine’s long-forgotten yesteryears. They show faces, clothes and sometimes whole towns that have ceased to exist.

A woman poses in front of a Monticello house in an image made by an Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company photographer roughly a century ago. The image is one of dozens donated to the Penobscot Marine Museum this week. Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum

Interest in the plates is only growing.

In 2016, Johnson, Shettleworth and W.H. Bunting collaborated on a book about the Penobscot Marine Museum’s Eastern Illustrating collection called Maine “On Glass: The Early Twentieth Century in Glass Plate Photography.”

The book, which has been out of print for years, was just republished with help from a grant from the Albert B. Glickman & Judy Glickman Lauder Foundation, which is also footing the bill for sending a free copy to every public library in the state.

A popular feature on the museum’s website allows visitors to search its digitized collection for historic Eastern Illustrating pictures of their favorite Maine towns.

The same week he received Durling’s missing milk crate, Johnson had another surprise.

On Monday, as he was about to deliver a talk about Eastern Illustrating to the Bayside Historical Society near Northport, a man approached him.

“He gave me a little box and inside were a dozen Eastern negs of Bayside he’d picked up somewhere,” Johnson said. “It was like Christmas in August.”

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.