Farm yielding crop of historic papers

Cache: Howard historical society volunteers are led to an unanticipated find, a house and barn full of documents dating from 1920.

October 11, 2002|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

The word went out: Montjoy, once a farm and soon to be a subdivision, had dozens of old ledgers sitting around in a barn.

For history-minded folks, that's like hitting a minor jackpot. But what they found was even better.

Eager to preserve records offering insight into the way we used to live, Howard County Historical Society volunteers showed up yesterday in the pouring rain to see what could be carted away - and discovered not just a barn but a large house full of documents, enough to keep them busy for days.

Cabinets full of tax returns. Bookcases of books. Files devoted to Howard County development. An envelope from 1964 with a canceled 5-cent stamp, addressed to "Mrs. M.L. Dawson Lee, Columbia, Ellicott City, Maryland."

"This is incredible," said Fred Dorsey, a society board member, holding a flashlight in one hand and a camera in the other.

It is a happy counterpoint to the oft-told story of how development erases history's traces: Sometimes impending subdivisions push private property - documents, photographs, equipment - into public hands.

Richard B. Buck, one of the estate's representatives, showed the preservationists around yesterday, and told them that everything the family wanted had been removed.

"It's wide-open as far as I'm concerned," said Buck, 81, first cousin to M.L. Dawson Lee, the longtime owner who died nearly a year ago. "Go ahead, take a look."

Montjoy - also spelled "Mountjoy" - sits at the edge of Ellicott City near U.S. 29 and Route 100. Winchester Homes is developing the 76-acre parcel and plans to save the house, thought to date from the mid-1800s, and keep the two slave quarters nearby.

But the barns are in the line of fire, which is why the preservation troops arrived to sift through everything inside. They also wanted to see which of the outbuildings might be worth moving, piece by piece, to another site.

Thomas Reinhart, the Maryland Historical Trust's administrator of architectural research, inspected the buildings and was impressed by a mid-19th- century, two-story barn with a stone foundation and a "Keep Out" sign.

"If you guys want it to take it, you should take it," he recommended.

Next to it was the barn with the ledgers. Michael Walczak, the historical society's executive director, stepped in to face the moment of truth: Could anything stored in an uncontrolled climate for decades be worth salvaging?

"I'm seeing a box of papers and right under that, I'm seeing a box of rat poison," Walczak said, rummaging in the dark through vintage receipts tied with string. "So we're going to have to be very, very careful."

Louis LeConte, second vice president of the historical society, looked around and pulled out a half-dozen bound ledgers - records from 1920, 1939, 1946, 1972, all in decent shape.

In the thick book from 1920, someone had entered transaction after transaction in neat script: bills receivable, Liberty Bonds income, salaries paid ($17.50 a week for a Miss M.E. Hansbury, among others).

Old farm ledgers might seem worthless - and deadly dull - but researchers leap upon such documents because each one can tell a story.

"Those are very useful for finding out about how the economy functioned, about how individual households functioned," said Bea Hardy, library director for the Maryland Historical Society, who oversees nearly 7 million items. "You can learn a lot about material culture from that: what would be typical for a farm family to own, what would be typical for them to be selling."

These documents generally don't hang around.

"The things that were `everyday' are the things that were trashed and now are valuable," said Nancy Davis, deputy director of the state society's museum.

For the Howard County Historical Society, the problem is space: There isn't enough. Walczak wants to return with lots of volunteers - not just a half-dozen - to sort everything properly and see what's most important.

Perhaps the documents from the 1970s won't make the cut, but it's a hard decision for people inclined to preserve: Everything will be old eventually.

"Here we are, we're out of room," said society President Hank Griffith, "but we feel compelled not to turn things away."

Walczak simply couldn't leave it all behind yesterday. Two ledgers went with him, a teaser to get others interested in the rest of the unexpected information bonanza.

"It's a little bit of good fortune," he said. "It's nice to know that people are thinking about us."

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