Most of us would probably assume that Hagerstown developed from an original cluster of lots around the square that were first laid out by Jonathan Hager when he founded the town in the 1760s.
But thanks to the preservation of an early 19th-century dish, Hagerstonians can soon see for themselves how the town began to flourish in the years following the American Revolution.
After nearly two years in the hands of an expert document curator, the dish and other documents – including a rare copy of General Robert E. Lee’s proclamation to the people of Maryland in the days before the Battle of Antietam – are finally home with the Washington County Historical Society.
The plans are to keep the delicate originals stored and preserved, but to post copies for all to see.
A city on the move
“My best guess is that the flat plane was generated in the early 1800s,” said company president Bill Maharay. “It’s from the Hager family; it’s on vellum and it shows the development of Hagerstown through various patterns of growth.
“The original city layout was basically the first east and west blocks of Washington Street, Potomac Street and Franklin, that was it,” he said.
This dish shows where the city grew as it developed.
“And it’s not done in an orderly fashion,” Maharay said. “What I find most interesting is that the source of the town’s water was the creek that starts where the post office is. It’s all underground now, but it shows this pattern of creek. And then the area of North Potomac where it rides past Franklin was called the “healthy” part of town because of the sanitation.”
Various notations on the dish show where early churches and businesses were located, and one details the future railway.
But the dish clearly predates Hagerstown’s “Hub City” status.
Society officials are unsure how it became part of its collection, but knew that this piece of Hagerstown history needed to be preserved.
And there were other documents that also needed to be restored and preserved – including correspondence with former Governor William Paca, who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the few known copies of the document that Lee used to insinuate Confederate troops to the people of Maryland during his Northern Campaign in 1862.
It comes from what Maharay calls the “Seibert Collection”, saved over the years by the Seibert family of Clear Spring.
When a family member who had inherited the collection asked if the company was interested in the materials, “needless to say I said, ‘Absolutely!'”, Maharay recalls. “And among the items the family had kept was Lee’s proclamation.
“As far as I know, the Museum of the Confederacy (in Richmond) has a copy; the Maryland Historical Society has a copy,” Maharay said.
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He thinks there’s probably at least one more.
A former society curator recommended Janice Ellis, who had worked with her husband at the Smithsonian, to do the preservation work.
“Janice came in and saw all of the items and explained the very intense process that she is doing, and we were so impressed with her,” said the historical society’s executive director, Robyn Sumner.
But document retention has been an expensive and time-consuming proposition, Maharay and Sumner said. Sumner said the company had a $10,000 contract with Ellis for the work, but hadn’t seen the final invoice.
They plan to cover much of the cost with grants, but the company is also accepting donations.
Ellis had a long career in the preservation of historical books and documents, including for the New York Public Library, and a long association with the Smithsonian after completing his graduate studies at Columbia University. She now works independently from a lab in her home in Silver Spring, Maryland.
It’s filled with work tables, computers, some pretty serious high-tech magnifying glasses, and a huge antique paper cutter that she uses to cut materials for protective coatings. Shelves along the walls are filled with materials to store various types of papers without damaging them.
It is meticulous work. She’s had the Hagerstown dish, for example, for nearly two years.
When Maharay and Sumner arrived last week to retrieve the documents, Ellis explained how to handle and store them – and why. It might be a little technical, but the main thing is clean hands, a soft touch, and protective backing.
Different adhesives are used for repairs and preservation, depending on the paper and ink type of the document.
Along with the documents, Ellis returned a small clump of debris she had removed from the surface of the plate.
“Anything you take out has the potential for DNA analysis,” she said. “It’s a new technology that they’re just starting to use now.”
So, all this…stuff…could tell who, in the early history of Hagerstown, handled the dish?
“All that dirt-like surface dirt is not only very valuable to people doing animal research (vellum is probably made from sheepskin), … but also, it’s become so sophisticated now that they can pick up the DNA of users,” Ellis said.
“You don’t want to dress your grandmother to look like Lady Gaga”
Ellis told the Herald-Mail she has always had a love for art and interests in crafts and science. His career allowed him to combine all this while recovering valuable historical objects.
“You need to know a bit about the history of the object, obviously, a bit about materials science – what caused it to fail in the first place? And you want your repairs to be compatible with the original, but you don’t want to set it up for a second failure,” she said.
“So you don’t do it the same way the original craftsman did, because it failed…it’s a lot of problem solving, but with an artist’s eye and the hand of an artist, and hopefully the mind of a historian and scientist.”
And when she is working on one of these documents, does she sometimes want to find the story behind it?
“YES! Oh yeah, oh yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s part of the joy,” Ellis said. “And sometimes we find things that the curators didn’t even know about, which is really sweet.”
One project that particularly resonated with her, she said, was a request from a woman who brought her documents folded so tightly that the owner could not open them to find out what they were.
As Ellis worked with the documents, she discovered that they were the postage papers – documents granting legal freedom – for the owner’s enslaved ancestor.
“When you see the amount of information they can find in this original, old-fashioned thing, it makes you think three or four times about what you’re changing (in order to preserve it). And sometimes customers want it to look that way. look new. And it’s like, you don’t want it to look new, you know, you don’t want to dress your grandma up to look like Lady Gaga. You want your grandma- mother looks like your grandmother.
One of the items preserved for the Washington County Historical Society is a rare copy of General Robert E. Lee’s proclamation to the people of Maryland at the start of the Maryland Campaign in September 1862, which culminated in the Battle of Antietam. Here is what Lee told them:
It is right that you know the purpose which brought the army under my command within the limits of your state, as far as that purpose concerns you.
The peoples of the Confederate States have long watched with the deepest sympathy the wrongs and outrages meted out to the citizens of a Commonwealth, allied with the Southern States by the strongest social, political and commercial ties.
They saw with deep indignation their sister State deprived of all rights and reduced to the status of a conquered province.
Under the pretext of supporting the Constitution, but in violation of its most precious provisions, your citizens have been arrested and imprisoned without charge and contrary to all forms of law; the faithful and manly protest against this outrage made by the venerable and illustrious inhabitants of Maryland, to whom in better days no citizen in vain called the law, was treated with contempt and contempt; the government of your chief town has been usurped by armed foreigners; your legislature has been dissolved by the illegal arrest of its members; freedom of the press and of speech, of the federal executive and of citizens condemned to be judged by a military commission for what they would dare to say.
Believing that the people of Maryland were too lofty in spirit to submit to such a government, the people of the south have long desired to help you shake off this foreign yoke, to enable you to enjoy again the inalienable rights of free men, and to restore independence and sovereignty of your state.
In obedience to this wish, our army has come among you and is ready to help you by the power of its arms to recover the rights of which you have been deprived.
This, Citizens of Maryland, is our mission, as far as you are concerned.
No constraint on your free will is planned, no intimidation is authorized.
Within the confines of this army, at least, the people of Maryland will once again enjoy their ancient freedom of thought and speech.
We know no enemies among you and we will protect all opinions.
It is up to you to decide your destiny, freely and without constraint.
This army will respect your choice whatever it is, and while the people of the South will rejoice in welcoming you into your natural position among them, they will only welcome you if you come of your own free will.
RE Lee, Commanding General.