The Olive Tree
by Richard V. Hollinger, Head of Special Collections
James Vickery (1915-1997), a teacher, historian, and collector of historical materials, left a profound legacy to the residents of Maine. The Vickery family from whom he was a descendant settled in Unity, Maine in 1794. James grew up in an 1832 farm house built by his great-great-grandfather, Private David Vickery, who served with George Washington at Valley Forge and was wounded at the Battle of Monmouth. James attended Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield, Bates College, and The University of Maine, where he earned a Masters degree. He was later awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Maine.
Although he developed a love for History while in high school, he chose to teach English rather than history because, he said, "the history teacher is usually saddled with coaching the basketball team."1 He taught high school English in several localities in the state, including Dexter, Brewer, Lee, Newport and Portage.
Vickery is best known, however, for his contributions to Maine History. His first historical research project, begun at age 15, was a family history that drew upon town records and oral histories. As an adult, he wrote a MA thesis on the history of Unity (1950) and he was an author of several books relating to the history of Maine: A bibliography of Local History: the town registers of Maine (1965); A History of Unity, Maine (1954); A Pictorial History of Brewer, Maine (1976); Made in Bangor: economic emergence and adaptation, 1834-1911 (1984). He also edited The City of Brewer, Maine, Centennial 1889-1989 : its history and observance for its centennial year 1989 (1989); An illustrated History of the City of Bangor, Maine (1969, 1976); and The Journals of John Edwards Godfrey, Bangor, Maine, 1863-1869 (1985).
Despite his contributions to the historical literature on the state and his reputation as an unrivaled authority on local history, Vickery's primary legacy was not as a writer or editor. As he himself explained "For me, it more enjoyable researching history than writing it. But to be a historian you have to do the hard work, which is to plop yourself down in a chair for hours and write. It is a fault of mine."2
Vickery's research took him not just to libraries and archives, but to auctions, used book stores, and numerous attics, garages and basements. "Collecting is a bug," he explained, "there is no fun to just buying off the shelf."3 And his interest in collecting, like his love for history, must have begun early, because in his 1950 thesis he cited the "James B. Vickery Papers," which he described as "documents, deeds, and papers and letters pertaining to the history of the town of Unity, Maine."4 Although Vickery never drove a car in his life, he traversed the state for decades looking for books and manuscripts, usually driven by another high school English teacher.
Gradually he amassed one of the most significant private collections relating to the history of Maine. His collection included thousands of books and numerous manuscripts, including, notes made by Joshua Chamberlain as a student at Bowdoin college; letters from Chamberlain and his contemporaries, memoirs of one of the earliest settlers on the Penobscot River and a large body of materials documenting Maine cavalry and infantry units in the Civil War.
Vickery eventually donated parts of his collection to several Maine cultural institutions. In 1978, he gave some 3,000 books to Special Collections of Fogler Library. He later gave some materials to the Maine State Museum, the Unity Historical Society, and the Bangor Public Library. However, the bulk of his collection-seventy-three boxes of materials-were given to Fogler Library in 1997. These donations represent, perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the man known to Maine historians as "Bangor's greatest natural resource."
1 "In retirement, Vickery plans to write, travel," Bangor Daily News, May 21, 1981 p. 10. 2 "Bangor's greatest natural resource," Bangor Daily News, June 20-21, 1992, Style Section, p. 1. 3 "Donation to a library," Kennebec Journal, August 9, 1978, p. 17. 4 James B. Vickery, Jr., "Chapters in the History of Unity, Maine," MA Thesis, University of Maine, 1950.
Home | Olive Tree | Winter 2004