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Drying Out Strafford History

Jun 01, 2023

By Staff | on July 28, 2023

Simone Pile, the volunteer curator of the Strafford Historical Society, has spent the past week drying photos and documents from the society’s collection after they were soaked with water during the flood earlier in the month. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

Spread out on every flat surface in Simone Pile’s bedroom and clothespinned to a long line that runs the room’s width, are generations worth of photographs and documents as they slowly dry with a little help from an air conditioner and blotting from paper towels. That was the state this week after flooding in a basement brought damage to a significant chunk of the Strafford Historical Society’s collection.

Pile, who has taken the mantle of curator for the historical society, was on hand last Thursday and Friday after it was discovered that the basement of the education center at the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford’s upper village, where part of the historical society’s collection was temporarily stored, had suffered flooding caused by heavy rains early this month.

Thanks to a restriction from entering state buildings until they were declared safe for occupancy, artifacts were left submerged in the watery basement for about a week and a half before the damage was discovered and folks rushed into action to save them.

A miniature, leather-bound photo album sits alongside negatives and prints that are recovering from water damage. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

Pile, who started her volunteer role with the historical society only recently, said the scene was disheartening and some things looked so damaged that “my inclination was to toss them, but there was someone there from the state who is more experienced than I am and she was like ‘maybe you want to save it, you could always throw it out later, but once it’s gone it’s gone.’”

That person was Rachel Onuf, the director of the Vermont Historical Records Program from the secretary of state’s office.

She heads a team called by the acronym VACDARN (the Vermont Arts and Culture Disaster and Resilience Network), which she helped create in 2019 as part of a national Alliance for Response Network.

VACDARN has been at sites around the state over the past couple weeks, helping cultural organizations recover damaged bits of their collections, but when Onuf got the call in Strafford, she didn’t realize the situation she was walking into.

With a clothesline of photographs drying overhead, Simone Pile looks through salvaged pieces from a collection of the Strafford Historical Society, much of which was rendered soggy by flooding earlier this month. (Herald / Tim Calabro)

It was last Wednesday, July 19, she said, when the folks at the Justin Morrill Homestead discovered water in the education center’s basement, a week and two days after the prior Monday’s flooding. The initial concern was for the nearly 3,000 volumes belonging to Strafford’s Morrill Memorial and Harry Library and to the state. Those were stored upstairs and were undamaged, but could not remain in the now-moist environment for fear mold might set in.

She immediately got on the phone to find space for the books and had experts at Dartmouth College on call, but had to pump the brakes when she learned that the basement was still full of water and no one could have access until that was addressed.

By Wednesday night, she said, the water was being pumped out and a civil engineer had provisionally okayed the building and the Dartmouth conservationists were able to start work Thursday morning.

“I was in Post Mills doing a site visit un-related to flood work and so I was close to the homestead and I thought, I’m just going to swing down and see how things are going,” Onuf said.

A set of books, deemed too water damaged to salvage, lays atop the discard pile as volunteers and officials worked to rescue Strafford Historical Society records from a flooded basement. (Provided / John Dumville)

“I went down and that’s when I discovered that the Strafford Historic Society’s material had also been in the basement.”

The Dartmouth crew had immediately pivoted when they saw the state of the archives stored in the basement and began working with members of the historical society to figure out what could be saved.

John Dumville of Royalton, who serves on the Strafford Historical Society board and is the former head of the state’s historical sites, got word and turned up to help.

“When I saw it, I cried. It was horrible, just horrible,” he said. The scene he, Onuf, and Pile described was a flurry of activity.

“I think the general feeling is we’ve got to get this stuff out because it’s mold and it’s hazardous,” Dumville said.

“It was way chaotic,” Pile agreed.

With four people from Dartmouth’s historic preservation department, five or six from the Friends of the Morrill Library, four or so from the Justin Morrill Homestead, and another four from the historical society, there was a lot of action and those groups were trying to stay out of the way of people from Buildings and General Services as they tried to pump water out of the basement.

Dumville fears that in the chaos items that should have been held onto were discarded as unrecoverable.

“I think people have no idea the extent of things that were thrown out,” he said.

“There were so many hands in the tills, everything was supposed to come by me first, but it’s possible something didn’t,” Pile said.

A complicating factor is that Pile hasn’t yet been able to locate a complete inventory of the society’s collection.

Some of the most waterlogged items were discarded, including a number of books. Some were commonly available books that had once belonged to Strafford families— Onuf remembered seeing a badly damaged copy of “Paradise Lost.”

What stuck out to Dumville was seeing several volumes from a federal report on the Civil War that had belonged to Justin Morrill in the discard pile.

“I think with these books the decision was made that well, these are books, they’re published elsewhere, someone can do the research at the Library of Congress,” he said. “These are exhibit items that … are part of the Morrill story. They shouldn’t have been thrown.”

Comedy of Errors

How did the Strafford Historical Society artifacts wind up in a basement on the Justin Morrill Homestead property? That’s a circuitous tale.

The historical society rented its former home in the upper village and the owner wished to re-purpose the rooms, so the board went on a hunt for a new home.

The Masons agreed to sell their building in South Strafford to the historical society for a dollar as long as they could continue to use the second floor.

Heartened by the generous gift, the society moved forward and got an engineer to see what would be needed to move in. It turned out the roof was in bad shape and much other work was required as well. The board turned to fundraising mode and got the roof replaced last year. A project for the foundation and first floor are still in the fundraising phase.

In the meantime, the historical society needed a space to store its collection. The group ordered a shipping container to house its three-dimensional items, such as furniture, and found a dry attic to house its fabrics, including historic clothing.

They balked at keeping most delicate items, the papers and photographs in the collection, in the shipping container for fear of humidity.

To the historical society board, the basement at the Morrill Homestead’s education center seemed perfect.

It was a relatively new building with a solid concrete foundation. The space was climate controlled and had a security system. It seemed ideal for a temporary home and the Morrill Homestead people acquiesced.

As the work on the new building dragged on and the seasons flew by, the paper artifacts remained in the basement for longer than intended— about a year and half, Dumville said. The garments were moved to the newly complete attic at the historical society building, but the papers were left in temporary storage.

When he was in charge of the state’s historic sites, Dumville said there was a blanket prohibition against storing artifacts in any basement because of the risk of flooding.

“You can’t blame the state, the state was good in saying ‘yes, you can temporarily store these things’; the society needed a place,” he said. “Maybe they’re at fault for not removing the things as soon as they could, but the big fault was not properly documenting things as they were hauled out of the water-logged basement.”

The Good News

Despite that concern, most of the collection seems to have been kept for inspection and recovery and the historical society was fairly lucky that more wasn’t lost.

“One big consideration,” Onuf pointed out, “is the quality of the water of the flood. And this water was clean. It was coming down from the stream, it did not encounter any sewage or chemicals, or gas along its path. If you wanted to look at it in a total panglossian way, everything just got a bath! That said, certain media—some inks are going to run and when they run, you can’t really bring them back.”

One particular batch of items that had Pile concerned was some of the hand-written bound volumes that were thoroughly soaked. Some were business ledgers, but others were diaries “and that part I’m really heartbroken about,” she said.

The artifacts that saw the worst damage were taken by a team from Dartmouth College to be frozen. That allows conservators to take their time handling and working on each piece individually.

Onuf recovered a box filled with 16mm film reels and is currently storing them submerged in water in a refrigerator. That will keep the film from sticking to itself while she tracks down a lab to rewash it.

Pile estimates that she’ll have the photo collection largely dried in the next few days and she’ll start moving them into archival storage in the historical society’s attic. The next big challenge will be cataloguing and identifying the photos, some of which lost their descriptive material as they were pulled from plastic sleeves to aid in drying.

Onuf’s big concern with damage such as this is in preventing mold blooms, which can destroy historic artifacts.

That requires time and airflow, she said, to make sure items are truly dry.

She’s also looking ahead to highlight lessons learned. Her group, VACDARN, runs workshops for cultural institutions and one thing she highlights is to have a plan in place before disaster strikes.

“I try to get people to create inventories and just get into their collections and know what’s what.”

Walking through possible catastrophes and imagining what to do goes a long way in preventing them.

“I’ve applied for funding to have another education day like we had in 2019,” she said. “We were thinking one component would be about the pandemic, but clearly we can also discuss case studies from this event and lessons learned and hopefully talk about some of the positive steps we’ve taken.”

Dumville agrees prevention is the key.

“FEMA can pay for the picnic tables you use for programs or the paper plates you use for ice cream socials, but it’s not going to be able to replace our original town charter, or Civil War papers, or books.”