By Leslie H. Dixon
SUMNER — A Harvard University education is available to anyone who walks through the front door of the historic Increase Robinson Library and Neighborhood House.
That’s the promise and the mission of the late Dr. Lucien Robinson, who in the 1940s bequeathed his great-great grandfather Increase Robinson’s house to the towns of Sumner and Hartford, complete with most of his 25,000 volumes of books and artifacts gathered during years of world travel.
It was Robinson’s intent to allow residents who had no money to go to college to get a Harvard University education through his book collection.
“We keep that spirit,” said Trustee Kathryn Kelly.
There are books written in Latin and other languages no one can decipher; books by Maine authors; a stage curtain from the former Union Grange with an oil painted picture of North Pond in front of Mt. Tom; rocks from the Coliseum, Jerusalem and elsewhere; Civil War artifacts and butcher hooks still embedded in the rafter where animals were once slaughtered.
The wood framed 1784 house – now a museum known as the Neighborhood House – and adjacent woodshed that was turned into the library doesn’t have heat, only limited electricity and no computers.
“We encourage old-style research,” said Kelly. “Not everything is on the internet.”
This research/lending library, which belongs to the residents of Hartford and Sumner, is a library where old-style research continues and the possibilities for exploration and discovery are almost as endless as the nooks and crannies that house everything from old kitchenware to old lights and brass candlesticks.
It has become the depository for local family scrapbooks and Bibles and other genealogical papers and artifacts and continues to thrive because of a group of dedicated librarians, donations from the public and the enthusiasm of visitors who come from near and far to walk through the 1784 home.
It still has its four-sided working fireplace, an ornately carved upright piano and pump organ, handmade iron hardware, original stenciling that has been uncovered in the living room and an elaborate, one-paneled mantle piece almost three feet wide. There is even a nearby burial ground where one of George Washington’s bodyguard’s is buried.
“For a long time, anyone who had anything would bring it down and dump it,” said Trustee Betty Marston, whose father was one of the original five library trustees designated by Lucien Robinson in the 1940s. “But you can’t keep everything. It was hard to part with some of it.”
It wasn’t always easy to keep the library and museum going with only donations from the public and volunteers to rely on it continued operation.
“We went through a rough time,” admitted Kelly. But when the times were hard, she said, people came through for the library and museum. When something was needed, it suddenly appeared.
“I just grew up here. I’m so thankful it’s still here,” added Marston.
“The Trustees and volunteers have been organizing research materials and artifacts within the house and library so that all who enjoy history can enjoy this window into the past,” said Trustee Diana Tolman in a statement. “The library is fortunate to have a growing ‘Friends of the Library’ list.”
Tolman said that Dorothy Hinshaw and Cynthia Norton have been working for two years on organizing the fiction section and are beginning to work on nonfiction books, implementing the Dewey Decimal System.
The proprietary library classification system, first developed in 1876, introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index, which allow new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject rather than the order of acquisition.
There is a more modern lending section in the front of the library, as well as an extensive genealogy section, she said.
The front yard is normally strewn with cars and bicycles on open days. Inside the buildings are a beehive of activity from visitors being given tours to librarians going through the stacks and others doing research in what is considered the repository for local history.
“It’s one of the few places kids still ride their bikes up and dump them on the front yard,” said Marston.
The children’s section is in the back of the library, the former woodshed. Children sit on old wooden benches among old wooden school desks under the hooks where years ago animals were hung and slaughtered. Some of the animals blood was used to paint the house as was custom at that time.
The Neighborhood House and Increase Library is located on Route 219 at the intersection of Route 140 on the bank of the east branch of the Twenty Mile River in East Sumner Village. The house was built by Deacon Increase Robinson in 1784 – the first wood frame house in what was then known as Butterfield.
Robinson was one of 21 men from Massachusetts who received farms in the Sumner/Hartford area after the close of the Revolutionary War, according to articles written by trustees and other volunteers, including Cynthia Norton. Sumner took its name from Increase Sumner, a Massachusetts governor.
The house eventually was passed down to Dr. Lucien Robinson of Hartford – a world traveler who lived for a time in Philadelphia, but made his summer home in Maine – in 1931 and that’s when the idea for a library was developed.
“I think that the research portion is the thing that draws people there,” Tolman said. “The atmosphere of the entire place takes you back to times that were so basic—survival and work to take care of your family. I think some of us become addicted to the place. We have been working the last two years to inform the two communities (Hartford and Sumner) that this place belongs to them.”
The library and museum are open Tuesdays and Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon during the summer months and by appointment.