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Carolyn Bacdayan, curator of the past, tells historians to 'carry on'

Lyme — It has been Carolyn Bacdayan's mission to make space for history — and to advocate for the paper artifacts that fill it.

Bacdayan, founder of the Lyme Local History Archives and the former town historian, said her methods over the past 26 years have included luring people in with tea and cookies or cornering them at town meetings to ask what plans they have for preserving their family documents.

Otherwise, she said, this is what can happen when long established residents of Lyme die with piles of papers in their basements and attics: "Their children fly in from California for a long weekend. They've already arranged with the rubbish people for the Dumpsters. They arrive on a Friday, they work all weekend, and they're out of here. And things go straight into the Dumpster."

Bacdayan — archivist emeritus who is now retired — was at the Lyme Public Library, home of the archives since 2014, for the Thursday morning rededication of the room she has helped fill with 40 collections and more than 10,000 documents chronicling Lyme's history.

Now called the Carolyn Bacdayan Local History Archives, the collection was officially launched in 1998 as part of the nonprofit organization now known as Lyme Public Hall & Local History Archives Inc. The original archives proliferated in the basement of the Public Hall on Hamburg Road.

Lyme Public Hall member Ann Brubaker told the small group — assembled by invitation in advance of a larger spring gathering — that it would be a vast understatement to say the original location at the Public Hall was not ideal. She recalled how professional archivists brought in by Bacdayan pointed out the dangers of the water pipes running across the ceiling directly over the shelves of documents.

"It didn't phase Carolyn," Brubaker said. "We had an emergency plan. Everybody knew what they were going to grab. There was tons of plastic that could roll down from the top of the shelves and cover everything. It really was an amazing operation."

It was filled with items that donors would not have given to anybody other than Bacdayan, according to Brubaker. "I really believe people had such faith in Carolyn that, if they gave family collections, they would be well cared for."

The archives' move out of the 1887 Public Hall into the public library built almost a century later was hailed by Bacdayan for improved storage and working conditions, as well as heightened visibility. She told her well-wishers Thursday that the people of Lyme deserve a safe place for the town's historical records.

"We need to make sure that we have the archival materials that allow them to glean the most they can out of what their sense of place is," she said.

Bacdayan, 85, lives in town with her husband, Albert. She retired to Lyme after serving as a director of planning at the University of Kentucky's teaching hospital.

Bacdayan was raised in New Haven as the daughter of a Yale professor and a mother who grew up in Iowa with the Sterling family name. The Iowa Sterlings had a genealogy that could be traced back to Lyme, where progenitor William Sterling is buried in the Sterling Cemetery and where Sterling City Road cuts a winding, bucolic loop from Route 156.

Bacdayan has said her family visited Lyme during vacations and holidays, and she enjoyed time at Lake Uncas and the Hamburg Fair.

The collection that grew under Bacdayan includes papers from Lyme families going back generations, diaries, meeting records and financials from the town government and local organizations, oral histories from more than 45 residents, genealogies and newspaper clippings.

Julie Hughes, a volunteer archivist from Wilton who took over from Bacdayan at the beginning of this year, said the archives includes several unique collections that reveal histories that otherwise would remain hidden.

One is a scrapbook of indenture contracts from 1748 to 1840 that spell out the terms of servitude for those working off debt for a set period of time in return for things like room, board and lodging. Historians estimate that more than half of the original population of the American colonies was brought over as indentured servants, according to National Geographic.

Hughes said African Americans and Native Americans were more likely to be enslaved than indentured at that time, but there are some freed slaves who subsequently became indentured. The legal indenture agreements were also a way for the government to provide for orphans who'd otherwise be wards of the state, she said.

Bacdayan said the indenture contracts were discovered in the attic of the old town hall by former Town Historian Hiram Maxim.

"Attics and basements," Hughes said. "The two worst places to put something."

Bacdayan, looking to both the future and the past, said it would be useful to examine the documents to determine which part of Lyme each contract emanated from. The town at the time consisted of parts of what is now East Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Salem.

"This is not just Lyme as we know it today," she said.

First Selectman Steve Mattson during the brief reception described Bacdayan as the town's physical connection with the past. He said she took the town's archives "from nothing, to the basement of the public hall, to the newly named facility here."

Lyme Public Hall & Local History Archives past President Bill Dennow in written remarks credited Bacdayan with laying the groundwork for the digitization of the archives, so documents are accessible to remote researchers.

Hughes estimated about 90% of the archive's most-used and important documents are available digitally. Yet that only accounts for about 5% of the total collection, she said.

A long-term goal is to partner with the Connecticut Digital Archive to get at least the most important collections online. Those include the memoir and diaries of Joseph Caples, an African American descended from slaves, who lived in Lyme in the early 1900s. They also include three boxes of audio recordings from early Lyme disease conferences made by Polly Murray, the resident known for sounding the alarm on the now eponymous disease that at the time had no name.

Bacdayan at the reception thanked the "many hands" that made the collection possible.

"All I can say is carry on," she concluded.

e.regan@theday.com

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