The Montville Historical Society became the unlikely recipient of a massive archive from the former Waldo Independent newspaper last month. The materials included a copy of almost every single issue of the paper, which was published from 1985 to 2008. There were also boxes and filing cabinets of photos, negatives, and from the later years, binders full of CDs bearing digital images.

How a tiny historical society came to have the papers was a matter of timing as much as anything. The stacks of newspapers and boxes of photos, stored for several years in the basement of the former Republican Journal offices at 71 High Street in Belfast, were nearly lost as the Journal’s parent company Village NetMedia scrambled to vacate the building for a new downtown office at the end of December.

Efforts to find a home for the papers and other Independent archives were piecemeal, with phone calls made to several of the paper’s founding members. Montville Historical Society President Debi Stephens heard about the papers and made a few inquiries, and was ultimately offered the lot if she could get it out of the office by the end of the month.

The job seemed easy enough, but Stephens balked when she entered the basement storage area for the first time and saw what she was up against.

“I was like, ‘Oh my word.’ I didn’t realize how much there was,” she said. “File cabinets, tubs of photos, newspaper clippings, everything. It was all down there.”

Well, not all of it, though in the month since the archives changed hands there has been much speculation as to what, if any, other documentation existed from the paper. Some thought the papers in the basement of the Journal offices were the only copies. Others were sure there were other complete sets, and there was rumored to be of a cache of microfilm that had been kept in a safety deposit box at one time.

Some of this proved true. Belfast Free Library has a full set of the papers, according to Reference Librarian Betsy Paradis, who said the first two years are in bound volumes and the rest are loose. According to Stacy Lanphier, the only founding member of the Independent still on its staff when the paper was canceled in 2008, binding a single volume of the paper cost around $300 when the Independent first started.

“We were always cash-strapped, and so that was it,” he said.

It was through Lanphier that the Belfast Museum and Historical Society acquired a collection of photos from the Independent about eight years ago, according to society president and museum curator Megan Pinette.

As for the microfilm – neither Lanphier, Paradis nor Pinette had heard of it.

Peggy McKenna, who worked as the Independent’s photographer for nearly a decade and is currently a member of the Montville Historical Society, confirmed the newspaper always ran on a small staff and a shoestring budget.

As a consequence, she said, the paper never had a filing system for different photo subjects like the larger newspapers had, sometimes referred to as a “morgue” — a system that would have been useful to the historical society.

“We didn’t have the time to do that and we didn’t have the money to hire someone to do it,” she said.

Feb. 1, McKenna and four other women from the historical society were looking through a pile of black-and-white photos from the Independent, spread over a table at Montville Town Office. Some had been annotated with people’s names, others with no obvious context, many taken by McKenna, albeit two decades ago.

Among the scenes were documentary photos: groups of city officials, parades, arrests in progress, and a number of photos taken inside the Maplewood poultry plant in Belfast.

Other photos suggested a story that could only truly be understood in the context of the accompanying article, wherever it might be: a photo of an old man holding up a newspaper clipping of himself as a young athlete; a girl with an “’87” button who appears to have won a Dr. Pepper bicycle, posing inside a convenience store with a representative of the distributor, maybe.

“Now we become the morguettes,” McKenna said. “We have to do it.”

As to how to organize the bodily remains of the Independent, there were, among members of the historical society, as many opinions as people in the room.

“We could go by date, or subject,” said Karie Friedman.

“We should organize them by subject,” McKenna said.

“We definitely want to keep them by date,” said Stephens.

“Plus you’ve got to have them by towns,” said Barbara Boulay.

Stephens spoke again, this time addressing the reporter.

“We haven’t decided yet,” she said.

Because all of the photos were taken after 1985, the members, many of whom are longtime Waldo County residents, were able to identify many of the scenes and the subjects of the photos from their own experience, only occasionally reaching an impasse.

McKenna held up a photo of an old man — maybe he was the county’s oldest resident, or oldest African-American resident, she couldn’t exactly recall. What she did remember was that it was her first assignment with the paper in 1988.

Looking at another portrait, this time of an elderly woman, she said, “I remember that sweater. I remember burning it in [a darkroom technique, used to darken light areas].”

“It must be a handmade sweater,” said Freidman, “so it’s good you got that detail.”

The Waldo Independent was started in 1985 by a group of seven former Republican Journal staff members who defected from the older paper to practice what they believed would a more cutting-edge, progressive journalism. The Journal, in print since 1829, had seen no competition since the early 1900s, and the Independent — published with a defiantly lowercase “i” in its masthead atop the front page each week — aimed to be everything the old newspaper wasn’t. And for more than 15 years the papers competed head-to-head for the county’s readership.

The original staff thinned over time, and in 2004 the paper was bought by Courier Publications of Rockland, a division of Crescent Publishing of South Carolina, which also owned the Journal. The Independent was later moved into the same building as the Journal and in the Independent’s final months the two papers were produced by more or less the same news staff, with their primary competition coming from the then-upstart VillageSoup.

The Independent’s run came to an end in 2008 when VillageSoup bought Courier Publications and opted to publish a single newspaper under the flag of The Republican Journal, canceling both the Independent and VillageSoup’s newspaper The Waldo County Citizen.

For the next two years, stacks of old Independents, organized neatly by year and wrapped in plastic, sat on a pallet in the garage below the former Journal offices at 71 High Street.

The Independent collection is currently being stored in the Kingdom School House in Montville until the historical society decides what to make of it.

“I was surprised we got the phone call to take it, and I’m glad we have it,” said Stephens. “Once we start to go through things we’ll start to have a better understanding about what to do with them.”