AUGUSTA — On a day when the Maine State Archives celebrated 50 years of existence, Howard Lowell, of South Thomaston, sat in the documents room looking at ledgers from his earliest employment years.

“I was hired in 1968 by state Archivist Sam Silsby,” Lowell said.

While he hoped to tickle memories of the work he used to do there, he had no trouble remembering the archives’ first offices.

“We were in a mezzanine office in the State House itself,” he said. “We had basically one large room for four of us, and Sam had an office. It was 12 feet by 20 feet. It wasn’t very big and since it was on the mezzanine, we had to duck so we wouldn’t hit the lights.”

On Monday, state officials gathered in the Maine State Cultural Building to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the archives, which shares a building with the Maine State Library and Maine State Museum.

While no one has to duck in the archives today, it is still short of space.

“We are full and the museum is full,” said David Cheever, who has been Maine state archivist since 2007. He said he has been looking at seven or eight options for space for the archives.

In the meantime, one wall of the cultural building atrium features a display of some of the 7,000 trademarks registered with the Secretary of State’s office over the years, including those for Poland Water, Natural Mineral Spring Water, Pure Diamond Spring Water, Henry’s Hair Hope Dandruff Remedy and dozens of other items.

“You can look them up and see them and appreciate them,” Cheever told attendees at the archives’ birthday party.

Some of those items continue to be sold today, including Poland Spring Water, B&M Baked Beans and Moxie soda, which were arrayed on the luncheon table.

A 3-cent U.S. postage stamp featuring a sailing ship from Popham Colony, photos of paper boats filled with french fries made with Maine potatoes, maps, Civil War memorabilia and a “Woman Suffragette Petition” from the Citizens of Waterville adorn the archives anteroom.

Cheever, as much a promoter as a preservationist, said the archives appeal to people for all kinds of different reasons. State officials and others research the state’s history, land claims issues, natural resource issues and older court records from around the state.

“We don’t know who’s going to come in from one day to the next,” he said.

Some people come in specifically to research genealogy.

“If you don’t want to go on a commercial venture and pay, you can come in here and it’s free,” Cheever said.

“Yes, we are here to preserve,” Cheever told a lunchtime crowd of about 70 people on Monday, including about a dozen legislators who ducked out of the State House between sessions. “We are also here to provide access to the public of those things important to Maine history.”

Some archive materials, particularly maps, have been converted into digital images and are available through the Web.

State Historian Earle Shettleworth Jr. talked of the origin of the archives in 1965 under then Gov. John H. Reed and then Secretary of State Kenneth Curtis.

The cultural building itself was dedicated in June 1971, the product of a $4.8 million bond.

“Maine has the extraordinary good fortune of having some of the most complete records from the Civil War of any state in the union,” said Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who gave credit to an adjutant general’s refusal to pay any invoices that weren’t well documented.

Dunlap said those records initially were packed in crates and kept in old powder magazines at the Kennebec Arsenal. Dunlap also spoke of Joshua Chamberlain’s actions during the electoral crisis of 1879 when he took the state’s records and secured them in the treasury vaults.

“The care of these records is a sacred act handed down from generation to generation,” Dunlap said.

State Rep. Erik C. Jorgensen, D-Portland, who sponsored a joint resolution recognizing the archives’ anniversary, said he’s a frequent archive user.

“It’s really a combination of both a multi-story filing cabinet and like that (giant warehouse) at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark,'” he said.

Archivist Lowell left Maine in 1972 for graduate school in Massachusetts and then went on to become state archivist and records administrator in Oklahoma and later Delaware. Lowell, now 70, retired five years ago as deputy assistant archivist from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. Lowell recalled that in the early years, archive records were spread across Augusta in basements and attics and in the Vickery Hill Publishing Co. warehouse.

He retains an appreciation for Maine’s archives.

“This was one of the first of a new series of state archives buildings around the country,” Lowell said. “That was not an insignificant thing.”

He said he also recognizes the challenges.

“Maine, like most state archives, is struggling with resources,” he said. “It has a good, strong state archives law and has had since 1965.”

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]

Twitter: @betadams

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