HATFIELD — Imagine buying an old industrial building, walking up to the second floor and spotting a trove of dusty documents just sitting there, forgotten.
If you appreciate history, this is gold.
In 1989, this happened to Richard Rescia, a businessman who bought the old Porter-McLeod precision manufacturing building with business partner Stanley Zewski.
He and Zewski planned to turn the old shop into affordable apartments and workspaces for artists and craftspeople. The plan fizzled over traffic concerns on quiet Prospect Court near the Mill River, he said.
“When the company went out of business, I think they didn’t want to spend any money cleaning out stuff, so they just left everything there,” Rescia, now 86, said in an interview.
That was about 50 years ago. Since the dated documents are of increasing interest, town historians are using grant moneys to begin mining the trove for hidden gems.
Rescia donated the boxes to the town in 2001 or 2002, he said.
“The age of some of the stuff — back to 1888 — we knew it had to be of interest to somebody,” Rescia said. “There were quite a few boxes of stuff, and none of it was organized.”
Fast forward to 2006. Rick Martin, who was a member of the town’s Historical Commission, came into the picture. The roof to the town garages, where the boxes were being stored, was leaking — its days were numbered.
The future of the old papers looked grim, so Martin and George Ashley, who was also on the commission, moved them to Martin’s barn.
“I thought they’d be there for a couple of weeks,” he said. “But they ended up being there for 10 years.” Grants to the rescue
Kathie Gow came along. She moved to Hatfield in 1998, and is the curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum.
She applied for two grants, one so she could hire a researcher to catalogue the papers — $1,500 from the state affiliate for the National Endowment for Humanities — and another for $961 from the Massachusetts State Historical Records Advisory Board to cover supplies such as acid-free folders and boxes.
Gow and Deb Blodgett, the hired researcher, were in the second floor of the Hatfield Town Hall one day last week, where the town houses some of its extra artifacts. Now, the papers are mostly categorized. Rusty staples and paperclips were thrown out. So were unsavable scraps.
“I think, at last count, there were 16,000 documents so far — and I’m not done yet,” Blodgett said.
She has been working to organize the stash since July. Most of the documents uncovered are dated between the early 1880s and the 1910s, she said. Porter-McLeod is believed to have closed sometime between the mid-1960s and 1970s, Blodgett and Gow said.
“When things started, correspondence was hand-written,” Blodgett said. “Then you started to see around 1900 the introduction of type-written documents. You start to see telegraphs in the 1880s, 1890s. Then you start to see telephone bills.
“This whole collection is just a keen insight into business practices at the turn of the century in a small rural town,” Blodgett said.
The style of the documents changed over time, too, she said.
Early on, the company received orders on colorful letterhead, and as time passed, companies started transitioning to more plain text.
Gow and Blodgett said the collection could be a mined by historians or interested locals looking to find out more about western Massachusetts’ industrial past, or who are interested in the collection for geneological purposes.
For example, the two brought out a letter dated from 1907, from Polish immigrant Frank Kugler, who was looking for work at the factory.
“Pardon me for my daring to bother you about my private affairs,” the letter starts out. “My wife and four little boys are living in Poland and my wishes are to have them come here to live with me and they are willing, but I shall not send for them before you advise me to. “I am willing to work for you as long as my services is needed,” the letter continues, in part. “P.S. Please state your decision in writing, so friend of mine who have wrote this will translate for me.”
Based on a Frank Kugler entry in the 1910 U.S. Census, Gow said it was “quite likely” that this Frank Kugler was the same one who wrote the company three years earlier. In 1910, Census records show Kugler was living with his wife Rosie and seven children, immigrants from Russian-occupied Poland, Gow said. Anecdotes such as this aside, it is difficult for Hatfield history buffs to pore through the documents, searching for context. The grants only covered inventory and supply costs. For now, a working catalogue of all the documents is available in an online spreadsheetonline spreadsheet.
The next step, Gow said, is applying for a scholar in residence grant from Mass Humanities — the Massachusetts arm of the National Endowment for the Humanities — and hiring a scholar to dive into the documents.
“You can’t really do that until you have this stage done,” Gow said.