, Salem, MA

Local News

April 26, 2013

Treasures from the past

Collector wins top prize for his Salem memorabilia

SALEM — Nelson Dionne, who never saw a scrap of Salem paper he didn’t want to pick up, has been honored by one of the region’s oldest historic preservation organizations.

Historic New England announced that its 2013 Prize for Collecting Works on Paper will be presented to a doctor who collected materials on Maine’s maritime history and to a 65-year-old former Salem police officer who saved everything imaginable about the city where he once walked a beat.

“The squirrel of the year award,” Dionne, 65, joked yesterday, sitting at a kitchen table. “I have squirreled away more of Salem than anybody has a right to do.”

Dionne has the usual: old postcards, photos, magazines, newspaper articles, pamphlets and books.

But it’s the other stuff that turns heads: a matchbook cover from Follett’s Men’s Store on Essex Street; a menu from Swenbeck’s restaurant when lobster Thermidor (the complete dinner) cost $3.25; and a bill from Battis & Brown, a long-forgotten cigar manufacturer on Front Street.

“I have doorknob hangers,” Dionne said of the promotions that businesses used to leave on front doors. “I have a collection of Salem sugar cubes.”

He doesn’t just have them — he has hundreds of them from businesses past and present.

Since the award is about Dionne’s paper collection, there’s no point mentioning the Sylvania radio tube he has, the Salem milk and beer bottles, and the samples of leather from old factories.

There is a method to Dionne’s madness. The collection is all about Salem, and mostly post-Civil War. It focuses heavily on businesses, shops, railroads and industry from the late 19th century to today.

“That’s when the city got really interesting, when the city took off as a manufacturing center,” he said.

It’s also important to note what Dionne’s collection is not.

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