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Northampton teen finds history in old newspapers hidden in the walls

  • Samuel Norton displays century-old newspapers Friday, that he found inside the basement walls of his Northampton home.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Samuel Norton displays century-old newspapers Friday, that he found inside the basement walls of his Northampton home.

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  • A Northampton Daily Herald from Jan. 7, 1914, reports that Northampton's former mayor, Calvin Coolidge, was elected president of the Senate.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A Northampton Daily Herald from Jan. 7, 1914, reports that Northampton's former mayor, Calvin Coolidge, was elected president of the Senate.

    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A Daily Hampshire Gazette from Jan. 16, 1914, is among newspapers found in a basement wall by Samuel Norton at his home on Revell Avenue in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A Daily Hampshire Gazette from Jan. 16, 1914, is among newspapers found in a basement wall by Samuel Norton at his home on Revell Avenue in Northampton.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • A story in the Springfield Sunday Republican from July 27, 1913, reports on the women's suffrage movement.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    A story in the Springfield Sunday Republican from July 27, 1913, reports on the women's suffrage movement.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Samuel Norton holds a newspaper removed from the wall of his basement on Revell Avenue in Northampton Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Samuel Norton holds a newspaper removed from the wall of his basement on Revell Avenue in Northampton Friday.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Samue Norton stands beside a wall in the basement of his home Friday where newspapers he discovered under boards are still attached.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Samue Norton stands beside a wall in the basement of his home Friday where newspapers he discovered under boards are still attached.

    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Samuel Norton displays century-old newspapers Friday, that he found inside the basement walls of his Northampton home.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A Northampton Daily Herald from Jan. 7, 1914, reports that Northampton's former mayor, Calvin Coolidge, was elected president of the Senate.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A Daily Hampshire Gazette from Jan. 16, 1914, is among newspapers found in a basement wall by Samuel Norton at his home on Revell Avenue in Northampton.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • A story in the Springfield Sunday Republican from July 27, 1913, reports on the women's suffrage movement.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Samuel Norton holds a newspaper removed from the wall of his basement on Revell Avenue in Northampton Friday.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Samue Norton stands beside a wall in the basement of his home Friday where newspapers he discovered under boards are still attached.<br/><br/>JERREY ROBERTS

But the person who was poring over the papers and absorbing their stories April 12 is not a historian, or at least not by trade. He is 14-year-old Samuel Norton, a JFK Middle School eighth-grader who discovered the papers in the basement walls of his home.

“It’s not as old as an Egyptian tomb or anything, but it’s a little project that is kind of an archaeological find,” Norton said during an interview in his basement, where he was surrounded by the walls he’d been dismantling to extract the newspapers from 1913 and 1914 that are inside each one.

He discovered them in the walls of a small interior room in the basement last October, and though he has no idea why they were put there, he said he is getting a history lesson with every aging page he removes.

“It’s a lot more hands-on than reading about it in a book or watching a movie,” he said. “It also gives a better sense of what life was like back then in a casual way, not just the big events — like local stuff or fashion.”

Julie Bartlett Nelson, archivist at Forbes Library, said old newspapers — like those in the Gazette archives in the library’s Hampshire Room for Local History — are valuable for historians or anyone interested in getting a “snapshot” of local, national and international history.

“It can be a time capsule of a particular day in history,” she said Tuesday. In addition to news and advertisements, the papers have “observations about the weather, agriculture, what goods are being bought and sold in the area, and observations of daily life. ... A lot of older newspapers would have mentioned if a relative had gone off to war, or if relatives were coming to town to visit.”

Bartlett Nelson said the library’s microfilm copies of the Gazette from 1786 to the present get a lot of use from locals and people from around the country interested in anything from genealogy to the history of a certain building or family.

“In terms of history books, you can get names, dates and facts, but newspapers get everyday, regular activities in town as well as that national news,” she said.

Digging in history

Last October, Norton and his father, Sean Norton, headed to the basement of their home to board up the small ground-level windows as Hurricane Sandy bore down on the Northeast.

In one corner of the lowest floor of the 1915 home, a room about 8 by 10 feet is partitioned off with two thin wooden walls. Norton had been in the tiny room many times before, but this time he noticed that sticking out from between gaps in the boards were scraps of old newspaper, mostly hidden in the interior of the dividing walls.

“He said, ‘Can I pull the boards out and see what the newspapers say?’ ” Sean Norton recalled. “My first thought was ‘asbestos.’ ” He eventually relented and his son started prying the boards off the two walls.

Then he sat back to watch as his son became engrossed in the 1913-14 world he uncovered in the pages of the old Gazettes — then called the Gazette and Courier — as well as copies of the Springfield Republican and the now-defunct Northampton Daily Herald.

“I think it’s great he has this curiosity,” Sean Norton said. “This is really what you want for your kids; for them to start exploring the world.”

The family has bandied about various guesses as to why the walls were lined with newspaper, including the possibility that the small space was a darkroom for an early photographer, and the newspapers were meant to block the light from coming through the cracks in the boards. Another guess is that it was used as insulation, although they don’t know why the former homeowners would want to insulate the tiny room. Bartlett Nelson said it was common 100 years ago to insulate walls with old newspapers.

They do know that, based on the age of the newspapers, it’s likely the room was built at the same time as the house, in 1915. Lucky for Samuel Norton, that’s a period of time that really interests him.

“I’m particularly interested in the First World War, so it’s cool to see how peaceful it was just before the war,” he said.

“In one article, people were talking nicely about the Kaiser,” he said, referring to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would soon fight against the American forces in the World War. “It seemed like they were on good terms then.”

Another article detailed a trip a Northampton suffragette group took to Washington, D.C.

“They met with President (Woodrow) Wilson and they were discussing how he supported them in his campaign, but he didn’t keep his promise in office,” Norton explained.

He was surprised by a lot of what he found, including that many still used horses and wagons or buggies to get around, as evident by the abundant advertisements for salves and other medicines to keep one’s horses in good health. “They were sort of in transition from horses to cars,” he said.

While Norton plans to keep removing newspapers to examine and preserve, he said he will stop before all the pages are gone.

“I’m going to leave some,” he said. “I think it would be cool for other people to see them here.”

Sean Norton said his son has a tendency to dive headlong into projects, so his interest in the vintage newspapers did not surprise him much.

“Sam was definitely impressed by the fact that this stuff is from 100 years ago,” he said. “It’s part of his home but it’s connected to larger events at the time the house was built.”

And his son isn’t the only one drawn in by the fading headlines and period photos in the pages. Sean Norton spotted an article about a promising local young composer, Roger Sessions, playing at Smith College.

“He went on to become a famous 20th-century composer and I knew his son,” he said. “So that was an interesting connection.”

Norton said his clan is kind of a “history buff family” and they’ve all enjoyed reading through the fragile old newspapers as his son dusts them off and brings them upstairs.

“I grew up in a town in Virginia that was invented in the ’60s, and I found it frustrating because it had no history,” he said. “Northampton has a long history. You can see it in the very walls.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.

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