MYSTIC — Tucked away on the Groton side of the river, the William A. Downes Archives Building, a wood-shingled structure, blends in with its neighbors on High School — but appearances are deceiving. In reality, it is like no other building in the area, because its cinderblock walls and concrete ceilings were constructed specifically to preserve important documents and photographs of the village’s past.
The building is the home of the Mystic River Historical Society, founded in 1973. “We were never meant to be a museum,” said the collections manager, Dorrie Hanna, surrounded by boxes and files. “We have some interesting items but mostly we are here to help with research and to preserve Mystic’s history.”
Equally significant is its goal of educating the public. The society’s website has many virtual exhibits and old photographs, and the group has also created a walking tour and guide pamphlet, and a kayaker’s guide to the river and its nearby historical houses. A partnership with several local schools has created a GeoHistorian tour featuring videos of some of the most famous buildings in town.
Aside from scanning documents and photographs, the society also plans to take 20 of its historical videotapes and transfer them into a digital format, and the board of directors will soon focus on how to improve education and outreach.
The staff, headed by Hanna, is always ready to help with research. Armed with house histories, genealogies, old newspapers, maps and a host of other documents, Hanna spends her time responding to inquiries when she’s not archiving a new donation.
“I get a lot of calls and emails,” Hanna said, “and they aren’t all local. We get calls from around the country. Not too long ago we were corresponding with someone in Germany.”
Although a few of the documents are from the 1700s, most of the society’s collection dates to the mid to late 1800s. “That was the time when Mystic was a real affluent community, when shipbuilding was really creating wealth in town,” Hanna said. “We have Civil War letters from more than one family. We have ships’ papers, diaries and an extensive photograph collections.” There is also a collection of street maps depicting the physical changes of the village over time.
Recently, the society received a gift of photographs and archives from Coogan and Marshall family members. Much of the collection relates to family history and life at the historic Coogan Farm and the Mystic area, and of the Coogan, Crumb, Holmes, Marshall, Morgan, and Newberry families.
The farm was purchased by the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center in October. “We have an important story to tell at the Coogan farm about Mystic’s heritage and culture,” said Maggie Jones, executive director of the nature center.
“This collection will be an important part of implementing that. The nature center has ownership of the farm property and we are pleased that the historical society will be the steward of the important Coogan collection.”
According to volunteer archivist Louisa Watrous, the society has worked with the family for several years to secure the documents. “It offers us an opportunity to save their history and with the digital technology, to reproduce it so that it can be shared with other family members,” she said.
With advances in self-publishing, the photographs, as well as letters and diaries, can be reproduced into a book for the family to enjoy. “Letting go of things can be really hard. The digital reproductions are of such good quality that it makes it easier. We’re really on the fringes of what is possible,” Watrous said.
Lou Allyn, president of the society, estimated that the society, a nonprofit organization, has about 400 members, and their dues supply much of the group’s funding. Other sources are an endowment, as well as occasional house tours and guest speakers.
Because of its name, the society is sometimes confused with the Groton Historic District Commission, a governmental regulatory body that operates out of the planning department.
“We have nothing to do with replacement windows or shutters,” said Hanna laughing.
Located at 74 High St. in Mystic, the Mystic River Historical Society is open Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon; Wednesdays from 1 to 4 p.m.; and Thursdays 1 to 4 p.m. It is open to the general public.