Historians plan for preserving pieces of past Hope: State preservationists anticipate rescuing rare documents and sites if proposed federal funding comes through.

March 01, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Under silt and soil, in basement archives and on crumbling city streets, historical treasures that helped shape Maryland are disappearing through age and neglect.

They include important discoveries that remain unexplored, as well as the earliest documents of Maryland's founding, which are fast disintegrating, all for lack of money.

Some are relics we take for granted. Others we barely know exist.

But in the past month, a small item in the Clinton federal budget has given state historians fresh hope for some of the most revered and endangered treasures.

Under the plan, the Department of Interior would set aside $75 million over three years for federal millennium projects -- restoration of the flag that inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner," for instance.

An additional $66 million would go to state projects. Maryland's share, probably in the neighborhood of $2 million, would be triple the state's preservation budget. A state millennium group is considering ways it might generate matching state and private funds.

"The federal money alone would allow us to roughly double the number of projects we can fund for those three years," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Maryland Historical Trust. "This would be our first significant increase in funds since Jimmy Carter."

It might be tempting to spend the money on basic housekeeping to compensate for cuts in funding in the past two decades. At the Maryland Historical Society, 30 percent of its aging newspaper collection is on microfilm. Historians say millions of artifacts in Maryland remain uncataloged and inaccessible to researchers for lack of money.

"I'd like to be able to provide proper housing and care for all of our collection," said Dennis Fiori, executive director of the historical society.

"A piece of furniture made by an immigrant, the diary of someone who went west from Maryland or who went to the Indies on a boat, or everyday clothes. They are all pieces of the story. Those often get lost because they don't receive the kind of attention they need."

But the money also represents a rare chance to embark on ventures that might otherwise remain out of reach. What projects might be candidates? Ideas are brewing in the Crownsville offices of the Maryland Historical Trust and at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore. Here are a few:

The Calvert papers

Rescued from a potting shed on a British estate in 1888, the earliest records of Maryland land, families, government and law reside in about 75 volumes and 60-some boxes in the library of the Maryland Historical Society. Dating to 1585, they offer the single best record of how Maryland came into being. Together the pages cover nearly 200 years of original Calvert family documents, records of slaves, the journals of the Upper House, and the Maryland-Pennsylvania boundary dispute.

Although kept in a room where temperature and humidity are controlled, and stored in acid-free folders and boxes, the pages are deteriorating rapidly.

To save them, the Historical Society must undo the 1930s work of misguided preservationists, who believed that pasting silk over the pages would protect them from aging. Instead it made them decompose faster. The only way to salvage them now is by removing the silk and restoring the paper.

"In the next few years if nothing is done, they are in danger of becoming illegible and crumbling, and there will be no way to repair them once that has happened," said Jennifer Bryan, curator of manuscripts. "This is such an important part of the history of Maryland, it would be a travesty to lose them."

It also would be an unfortunate finish for records that were barely rescued 110 years ago. After finding the records under the dubious care of a Calvert descendant, members of the Maryland Historical Society in 1888 scraped together $1,589.33 to buy the papers and pay for the insurance and the trip home. All but $4.33 was raised through subscriptions by members of the group.

Estimated project cost: $500,000.

Barney's flotilla

Historians have long wanted to renew their search for a fleet of American gunships that was sunk in the Patuxent River during the War of 1812. After a couple of skirmishes, the ships, led by Revolutionary War hero Commodore Joshua Barney, were ordered sunk in 1814 to avoid their capture by the British, who were making their way south to burn Washington.

Archaeologists cracked part of the mystery in 1979, when they discovered the flagship, the Scorpion, embedded in silt near the Prince George's County line. The exploration yielded scores of well-preserved artifacts -- munitions, bottles, pottery, tools and a complete surgeon's kit.

But it was too costly to raise the ship out of the river and conserve it, and researchers had little choice but to rebury it. The other ships, perhaps more than 20, have never been found but are believed to be close by.

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