Bar Harbor Historical Society museum brims with resort town’s rich history

Debbie Dyer, volunteer curator at the Bar Harbor Historical Society museum, holds up a plate in the collection. PHOTO BY JESSICA PIPER

Newspaper clippings. Radio equipment. Engraved dishware. Sailors’ caps. If it pertains to the history of Bar Harbor, there’s a good chance that Debbie Dyer has seen it — and that it might very well be on display at the Bar Harbor Historical Society museum located on Ledgelawn Street.

Dyer, who graduated from one of Bar Harbor High School’s last classes before Mount Desert Island’s schools merged in 1968, has been the historical society’s volunteer curator for 29 years. It is a feat only possible for someone with her level of passion for Bar Harbor’s past.

“I have always had a love of Mount Desert Island by means of the history,” Dyer said, gesturing to the assemblage of relics around her.

For her and the historical society, a transformational event took place in 1997. That year, the society — which had previously been confined to a single room in the basement of Jesup Memorial Library — acquired the St. Edwards Covenant as its new museum. When word got out about the move to the Jacobethan-style building built in 1917, Dyer found herself flooded with residents looking to share their personal artifacts.

“It was like people opened their attics and opened their closets and everything and just started bringing in historical objects,” she recalled. “It was amazing what people found once they knew there was a place for it.”

The Bar Harbor Historical Society building

Now the society is planning to move again in the near future to Cottage Street where it acquired a half-acre, centrally located lot earlier this summer. The society plans to construct a new building housing its headquarters and museum.

Meanwhile, drawing from its wealth of objects, the present museum continues to mount exhibits springing from interwoven tales of the island’s history.

Bar Harbor’s reputation as a summer destination dates back to the Gilded Age, when publisher Joseph Pulitzer, William Proctor (the founder of Procter & Gamble), and several members of the Vanderbilt family were among the town’s seasonal habitants.

“They would take picnics and go out on the mountain and such,” Dyer said, pointing to their photos in a framed display not far from the museum entrance.

Financiers weren’t the only famous island residents — Dyer highlighted photos of Beatrix Farrand, an early 20th century landscape designer and the only woman out of the 11 founding members of the American Society of Landscape Architects. She designed gardens all over Mount Desert Island, as well as the East Garden of the White House.

A few rooms later, there is the medal of the Order of the British Empire that was issued to Dr. John B. Ells, the town dentist who became known as a “wharf rat” because he would talk to anyone at the pier, according to Dyer. He received the honor in 1955 due to his hospitality toward British sailors.

The island’s history and the museum’s artifacts go beyond the tales of the rich and famous. One display showcases equipment from the Otter Cliffs Radio Station, which was commissioned in 1917 and quickly became essential to the Navy’s transatlantic communications during World War I. Others feature more quotidian items, ranging from old milk jugs — the island once had 40 dairies — to meat slicers.

“I want things out so the kids can know what they looked like,” the curator explained.

The most popular exhibit, according to Dyer, is the room chronicling Bar Harbor’s great fire of 1947. The fire, which was also the subject of a documentary released last year, destroyed over 200 homes, nearly 70 seasonal mansions, and 5 grand hotels. The museum’s collection includes newspaper clippings from the time and artifacts that survived the fire, including dishes engraved with names of hotels that burned down.

In her nearly three decades of work, Dyer has seen all sorts of objects. “Nothing surprises me, to tell you the honest truth,” she said.

She accepts donations of any kind, certain that she can “find a home for everything” within the historical society’s collection. The museum continues to receive a steady stream of donations, having added 14 items since March.

These objects may once again be on the move after the historical society purchased a lot at 58 Cottage St. with the plan of eventually relocating there. Dyer hopes that a more central location in Bar Harbor could improve foot traffic, attracting more visitors.

“People are amazed that a small museum could have so much history,” she said.


The Bar Harbor Historical Society Museum is located at 33 Ledgelawn Avenue in Bar Harbor. Tel: 288-0000.