, Salem, MA

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.

“No witches,” he said. “No Hawthorne. No ships.”

He collects what others don’t, or won’t.

“The Peabody Essex and lot of local historical societies ignored what was going on around them,” he said.

Although scattered around a basement, Dionne’s collection is organized. It’s in binders, sorted into categories and labeled. For example, he doesn’t just have matchbook covers. He has Chinese restaurant matchbook covers ... bank matchbook covers ... drugstore matchbook covers ... political matchbook covers.

Someone once said of the Irish writer James Joyce that the city of Dublin could be rebuilt from his book “Ulysses.” The same could be said of Dionne. Salem’s past could be reconstructed, in minute detail, from his files, maps, photos and stacks of material.

To local historians, he is a living treasure. Unprompted, Dionne will send off pamphlets and articles of interest to researchers or organizations.

“It’s a godsend,” said Bonnie Hurd Smith, who writes on women’s history.

It’s hard to say what kindled this firestorm. Dionne credits a high school civics teacher and the fact that Salem was marking the 50th anniversary of The Great Salem Fire of 1914 when he was in high school. He bought a copy of “The Salem Fire” by Arthur Jones and learned more from his own family, which lost a home in the massive blaze.

He started buying postcards at Martha’s Sweets at the corner of North and Essex streets, and at the old Salem Bookstore. After a stint in the Army, he attended meetings of a postcard club at a YMCA in Boston.

“Next thing I knew, I had 25 postcards, then 50 and 100. It just took off.”

Once he started, Dionne never looked at Salem the way others did. He saw beyond the surface to the layers of history below, flipping the images in his mind like pages in a book. He didn’t see Riley Plaza; he saw the train depot, the steam engines, the old roundhouse, the repair sheds, the warehouses and the faces of the workers.

With him, past was present — 1970 was 1870.

“There are echoes from those days all around us,” he said.

He treasures what has been cast aside and forgotten. Only Dionne can pick up a booklet titled “Sewerage of Salem” and hold it in his hands like the Gutenberg Bible.

In recent years, Dionne has published books on Salem history. He has a new one coming out this year and is making plans for one on the Salem Fire Department for next year, the 100th anniversary of the great fire.

Dionne’s collection, which some consider priceless, is certainly irreplaceable. Most of it will be turned over to Salem State University this summer for its new library and to Gordon College for the Salem Museum in Old Town Hall.

“This collection is a treasure of Salem history that will be used for many years by members of the community, students and faculty,” Susan Edwards, Salem State archivist and special collections librarian, said in a statement.

Historic New England will present the prize to Dionne on May 1 at a reception at the Governor John Langdon House in Portsmouth, N.H.

Tom Dalton can be reached at