November 26, 2012

Skowhegan library discovers trove of books by local poet

SKOWHEGAN -- Folks at the Skowhegan Free Public Library have discovered treasure in the attic.

click image to enlarge

Pat Dickey, left, Corrilla Hastings and Dale Jandreau talk about discovering 170 copies of "Kennebec", written by Louise Helen Coburn, at the Skowhegan Free Public Library, on Monday. The books will be on sale during the Christmas bazaar on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, and proceeds will go to the library's renovation fund.

Staff photo by David Leaming

Scattered across the attic floor and buried in nearly a century's worth of dust, were more than 150 vintage copies of noted Skowhegan native Louise H. Coburn's 1916 book of poetry, "Kennebec and Other Poems."

Elsewhere, in the library's mezzanine section, workers preparing for the library's $1.5 million renovation project also found 20 unopened sets of Coburn's early history, "Skowhegan on the Kennebec," published in 1941, some still in the publisher's shipping boxes.

Copies of the books have been on display at the library all along, and the newly discovered editions will be sold during the library's annual Christmas bazaar Friday and Saturday, a part of Skowhegan's annual Holiday Stroll. Proceeds will be go toward library renovations.

"We found them way up in the top attic, lying on the floor, amidst dust, dirt and bat droppings," according to Corrilla Hastings, chairwoman of the library trustees. "Why they were strewn out, I have no idea."

The 8 1/2-by-5 1/2-inch book of Coburn's poems is hardbound in dark blue cloth with gold lettering on the cover and gold leaf trim along the top.

"It's a first edition," Hastings said. "Only edition."

She said the pages of some of the books of poems were still uncut from the publisher and others are gold-leaf trimmed, dating the book to the early part of the last century.

"Having the pages uncut like this is a proof that these are what we say they are," said Dale Jandreau, library director. "They're first edition. This is not a reprint. By leaving the pages the way they are, not being cut, it shows it came from the publisher that way."

The book of poetry will sell for $7.50, the two-volume "Skowhegan on the Kennebec" for $300.

Alibris.com, a rare, new and used-book sales website, lists "Kennebec and Other Poems" selling for $55 in collectible condition in hardcover. There have been several paperback reprints.

Amazon.com lists copies of "Skowhegan on the Kennebec" in hardcover, published in 1941, at $311.76 and $350.

Born in Skowhegan in 1856, Coburn was the daughter of a prominent Skowhegan lawyer, Stephen Coburn, and the niece of Abner Coburn, who was governor of Maine during the Civil War. He also founded the Skowhegan library in 1889 and Skowhegan Savings Bank in 1869.

Coburn was the second woman to graduate from Colby College, where she helped establish a women's sorority, according to the website skowheganhistoryhouse.org. Mary Low was the first woman to attend Colby, doing so in 1871, two years before Coburn, according to the college's website.

Coburn later became the first female Colby College trustee and was an important financial supporter and actively promoted higher education for women, according to the History House website.

Trained as a botanist, she published science books and pamphlets, was editor of the "Maine Naturalist" and was well-known as a poet, according to the Colby website.

In 1936, Coburn bought a brick cottage on the riverbank near her home and began restoring it, adding a museum room, which became the Skowhegan History House. Her will provided for a nonprofit corporation, the History House Association, to manage operations and keep the facility open to the public on a seasonal basis.

Her purpose in acquiring the brick cottage was to create a space to keep and display her own material as well as many donations of important historic items from other Skowhegan families, according to the History House website. The restored cottage was filed with antiques, furnishings and items of everyday living.

"Her vision was for visitors to pass through a home that was a slice of life from the mid-1800s," according to the website.

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