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Meet the first responders who save Vermont archives from destruction

Sepia-toned photographs are spread out over a piece of paper on top of plastic sheeting. They are mostly portraits of children -- about two dozen.
Simone Pyle
Century-old photographs and diaries from the Strafford Historical Society sat in a water-soaked basement for over a week after the flooding last month.

When state officials first checked on the Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford after the flooding last month, it seemed OK. The brook hadn't overflowed. The old house was mostly dry.

“When you look at the property, everything looks just fine and beautiful,” said Tracey McFadden.

She’s the director of the Friends of the Morrill Homestead, a nonprofit that organizes programming at the site — the former home of 19th-century Congressman Justin Morrill, best known for his work to establish public universities.

The property is a group of pink Gothic-style buildings and gardens owned and managed by the state.

A photograph shows cardboard cutout statue poking up from a Casella dumpster. It sits on a dirt driveway, in front of a mowed lawn. Old pink farm buildings in the background.
Micki Colbeck
Friends of the Morrill Homestead
There’s still three to four inches of water in the basement of the education center at the Justin Morrill Homestead. Each time water gets pumped out of the building, it flows back in. The site remains closed to the public.

After the flooding, the site was closed as a precaution. So it wasn’t until over a week later that McFadden first went into the education building to get supplies for a summer camp. It was a Tuesday.

“When I went to go down in the basement to get our tables, it was full of water, and the fridge was floating on the side,” she said. “That’s when it was first discovered.”

Sitting in the basement were nearly 20,000 gallons of water — as high as a foot and a half in some places, according to Laura Trieschmann with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation.

“I saw them suiting up in complete hazmat suits. And I thought, ‘Oh, OK, we’re getting really serious here.’”
Deborah Howe, Dartmouth College Library

At first, Trieschmann was most concerned about a collection of thousands of books from Justin Morrill, stored on the first and second stories of the building. To get the old books out safely, she reached out to a group of first responders in Vermont dedicated to rescuing one-of-a-kind archives from destruction.

“This is why we formed, was to try to respond,” said Rachel Onuf.

She runs the Vermont Historical Records Program and she helped establish the Vermont Arts and Culture Disaster and Resilience Network in 2019, in part, in response to Tropical Storm Irene. They share best practices, hold trainings, and help manage emergency response.

The July floods have kept the group busy. “This was our first real activation,” Onuf said.

She has been coordinating volunteers to help salvage delicate, flood-damaged material across the state, from sacramental records at a church in Montpelier and documents in Montpelier City Hall to print archives at an art center in Johnson and records from an old furniture company in Barre.

More fromVermont Edition: After the floods, Vermont artists and arts groups salvage materials, work

“I don't know how those items ended up in the basement. They should not have been down there.”
Laura Trieschmann, Vermont Division for Historic Preservation

When Onuf heard about what happened in Strafford, she made a plan. She called on a team of conservators from Dartmouth College to help evacuate the roughly 3,000 books to be temporarily rehoused at the Vermont State Library.

“By Wednesday evening I thought, this is great, we’re all set,” she said. “There’s going to be a book pack out and delivery to Barre tomorrow — we’re good.”

But the next day, the plan shifted.

“I became aware that there were a lot of collections in the basement,” said Deborah Howe.

She’s the collections conservator at Dartmouth College Library who arrived with several colleagues to help with the book pack-out. They soon switched gears.

“At one point, a team from the state came,” Howe said. “I saw them suiting up in complete hazmat suits. And I thought, ‘Oh, OK, we’re getting really serious here.’”

A collage of two images. On the left: old sepia-colored photographs pinned on a clothesline of young people posed for a portrait, on the right, two rows of old water-damaged books laid out on a table.
Simone Pyle
Ten days after major flooding this summer, state workers went into a basement at the Justin Morrill Homestead and pulled out boxes that had been stored there by the Strafford Historical Society.
A collage of two images - on the left, a tiny leather bound book that says "album" on the spine, with a wrinkled cover. On the right: a pile of water damaged material sitting out on a lawn. One piece of paper has a blue ink blot.
Simone Pyle
The collection included century-old photo albums, handwritten diaries, ledgers, day books, and other materials from the town's history.

State workers started bringing up boxes that held century-old photo albums with velvet covers, pocket-sized handwritten diaries, ledgers and day books, along with boxes of clothes from the 1800s and rolls of 16 millimeter film from nearby summer camps in the 1950s. They belonged to the Strafford Historical Society.

“I don't know how those items ended up in the basement,” said Trieschmann, with the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. “They should not have been down there.”

For their part, representatives from the historical society agree.

“It’s kind of dumb luck that some of our archives were there in the first place,” said Simone Pyle. She’s a school librarian and the volunteer curator at the Strafford Historical Society — a role she's been in less than a year.

“They were moving buildings and the new building had some structural issues that needed to be addressed,” Pyle explained. “So all of the historical society archives and objects had to be put in storage. They were in various locations around town and then there was this batch that was in the Morrill education center.”

Several people wearing masks and some in gloves sit in a room piled with papers and documents and paper towels
Rachel Onuf
A team of conservators from Dartmouth College Library sorted through damaged historical materials from Strafford over two days.

Most of that batch wasn’t damaged in the flooding. But some boxes stored on the lower shelves were soaked through. They had this smell.

“The smell of wet paper, wet glue — old animal glue becoming wet and saturated, wet leather, with a lining of mold,” said Howe, from Dartmouth College.

You could see the mold on some of the sodden books — white blooms tinged with blue.

“If you think of things that get moldy in your refrigerator, it was a little bit like that,” Howe said. “Just sort of bigger.”

"To just halt the process you can freeze the items. Essentially that just puts everything on hold. It's not ideal."
Deborah Howe, Dartmouth College Library

And while something in a fridge can get moldy, in a freezer, it can't. And that’s what Howe uses to stop the spread mold. It’s sort of a last resort.

“To just halt the process you can freeze the items," Howe said. "Essentially that just puts everything on hold. It's not ideal."

There were a few items that were beyond saving. Pyle remembers throwing out a beautiful bound copy of Paradise Lost and other old editions of print books. But she thinks, overall, they were lucky.

“Everything that's unique to our town, and our town story, I really can't think of anything that had to be disposed of," she said.

After two days of working on site, the Dartmouth team packed out seven crates of wet material and brought them to a sub-zero freezer at the campus library. They’re still there.

What happens next depends a lot on funding — whether the historical society can get money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or grants from the state to pay for professional restoration.

Meanwhile, some of the damaged film reels were sent to a lab in Maryland. It’ll cost about $16,000 to restore and digitize the reels. It’s not clear if that will happen.

"I’m falling asleep and waking up to these faces surrounding me.”
Simone Pyle, Strafford Historical Society

Most of the waterlogged photographs ended up with Pyle. She hung them up with clothespins all around her home. While the photos have been drying, she’s gotten to know them.

“In a very intimate way,” she said. “Like, I’m falling asleep and waking up to these faces surrounding me.”

Most of the photos are dry now, and packed away in the attic at the new historical society building. They won’t be the same as they were before the flooding. But for Pyle, the water damage is a part of their story.

“This is just another leg in their journey through history.”


Lexi Krupp is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.

Lexi covers science and health stories for Vermont Public.
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