Nelson Dionne: Keeper of Salem History

Learn more about the man who contributes courtesy vintage photos to Salem Patch.

Editor's Note: Nelson Dionne routinely contributes to Salem Patch from his collection. He is the author of "Salem in Stereo: Victorian Salem in 3D" and co-author of "Then & Now" with Salem Patch contributor Jerome Curley. Photographs from Dionne's collection are often featured in Curley's regular Salem Patch column.

A first glance, a visitor to Nelson Dionne's work space might expect a frazzled history Ph.D. candidate to walk through the door to resume work on his thesis.

Photocopied newspaper clippings, maps and plastic sheet protectors plaster the table in Nelson's home. Books and filing cabinets line the walls. Three-ring binders, Tupperwares and boxes filled with memorabilia are piled in various locations, and a personal computer whirs away.

Nelson is as a keeper of Salem history.

The task sounds like a serious one, and that may be, but for the veteran, retired Salem Police officer and lifelong history lover, the perpetual task of gathering, organizing, bumping into and putting together bits of Salem's history is anything but a burden.

"I'm having fun," he said while sharing his collection with us in his Peabody home one morning early in April. "This is fun. If you can't have fun, don't do it."

Within his vintage "anything" Salem collection, which includes photos, cards, brochures, pins, old envelopes and even freebies from old Salem businesses, Nelson said he tends to focus on the history of buildings and places as opposed to specific people.

Items in the collection come from a variety of sources, including , but many of the pieces are "freebies," he explained.

Many times, Nelson said, "the pieces just fall into my lap."

When something finds its way into his collection, Nelson is sure to make extra copies and file things away topically. He also creates timelines, his own little historical vignettes, by comparing his new material to material he already has.

"If I find something, I add it here; I add it there; I add it where it's appropriate," he explained.

At a recent   when it was a Coast Guard Air Station, Nelson managed to make a "major" find, which included photos of display panels on the history of the base complete with comments.

During our visit to his home, Nelson said he was eager to match up the new material to his collection of Salem News clippings to complete some of the stories from the base.

"It's like finding a right glove when you have the left," he said. "Another example of serendipity in research."

In addition to gathering and organizing the pieces, Nelson said sharing them is integral to his process as well.

"Schmoozing," as Nelson puts it, is something he enjoys. He recently made a presentation to the Friends of Winter Island and has given lectures at for their Explorer's Program. His next lecture will be on the Great Salem Fire  of 1914. 

By sharing with the community and getting to know people, Nelson continues to make those serendipitous connections that help him build his collection and find those people who appreciate it most.

Plus, chatting away helps keep things interesting, according to the historian.

"I've come across strange things over the years simply by not shutting up," he explained.

Residents can expect this keeper of Salem history to continue collecting and sharing his finds, which you can find on Salem Patch each week.

"It's a fun place to get lost," Nelson said of his collection "You never know what's going to pop up."

And when he's on the town, Nelson's historical discoveries come alive.

"It's all around you," he added.

If you have any photos or memorabilia related to Salem buildings, places or jobs you're interested in getting to Nelson (he's particularly on the lookout for matchbooks, mugs, ashtrays and mail history), email Salem Patch Editor Aubry Bracco.

Robert Booth April 19, 2012 at 02:41 PM
Great piece on Nelson, the unrivaled historian of Salem's industrial past. Kudos!
William Legault April 19, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Nelson is a Patch, and Salem treasure.
carlos frias April 20, 2012 at 12:18 AM
you enhanced your bio, nelson, dear
Nelson Dionne April 20, 2012 at 12:43 PM
You are correct, as the article is written; After I got home last night & read the article, I sent Patch Editor Aubry a request for a few corrections. The SSU teaching ref should have mentioned that it was for their Explorer Program. That bit of info is in my Linkedin updates. Next Explorer session will be for the Salem Fire. I have been working closely with the SSU , the college archives it's History Department on a number of items for the past few years.
Nelson Dionne April 30, 2012 at 04:19 PM
SAVE THE DATE > > > A tentative date for my next presentation to the SSU's Explorer's program will be on Monday, July 30th, at 10 AM. The subject will be "The Great Salem Fire". I have been doing extensive research, and have added much new heretofore unknown information . to my collection. The June 1914 conflagration changed much of Salem to turn it into the city as we know it today.


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