Historical treasures in the attic: Pioneer Craft House tour leads to 'scholarly' find

Published: Thursday, Nov. 19 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

SOUTH SALT LAKE — When you restore an antique desk from the 1890s, do you take the gum off the bottom?

Workers, volunteers and neighbors at the Pioneer Craft House in South Salt Lake asked that Saturday after excavating desks, teaching aids and student papers from the building's previously unknown attic. The student papers have dates written on them between 1890 and 1900, when the building was being used as a school. The desks and teaching aids are believed to be from the same period.

The attic was discovered after police officer Paul McCullough asked for a tour of the building. Lory Smith, Pioneer Craft House's executive vice president, and her assistant, Ingrid Hersman, never knew the building had an attic, but once McCullough pointed out the unused space from outside the building, they started to wonder.

McCullough started poking around for an entrance in the ceiling panels. When he couldn't find one, he called South Salt Lake Fire Marshal Bruce Shoemaker for a ladder. The two climbed onto the roof and broke in through a window.

Inside, they found a small room with a pile of desks buried in inches of dust. Dust swirled up with every step the men took. Shoemaker said it looked like they were walking on the moon.

As Shoemaker walked toward the desks, straddling the rafters, he realized he was stepping on handwritten papers.

"We were expecting something like King Tut's treasure, all these artifacts and items of value," Shoemaker laughed. "We were actually a little disappointed."

But Hersman was crying because she was so excited.

"I am just amazed," Smith said. "It brings tears to my eyes."

While in the attic, McCullough and Shoemaker found a trap-door entrance to the attic in the one place McCullough hadn't looked — the women's restroom. After opening the trap door, volunteers lowered the desks, benches and boxes full of student papers and old classroom materials.

"We could see the ink wells on the desks so we knew they were old," said McCullough. "Everything had at least an inch to half an inch of dust, but I was surprised at how good of shape everything was in."

A few hours later, workers had pulled out nine metal school desks, five wooden desks, maps from the 1890s and classroom charts such as a skeleton, a multiplication tables chart and a poster on beehives.

There were also dozens of student papers, including everything from personal letters to writing exercises and story problems, all with student names, dates and ages.

Rex Shencer, age 12, had practiced his cursive "h" by writing "he, hen, hale, he'll" — all with a quill and ink. Natalie Fowler had written a letter dated 1900. Another student, whose name had torn off the paper, wrote a two-page story about going nutting with his friends and then worked story problems on the next sheet.

As they were leafing through the papers and reading the children's names, Smith and Hersman discussed plans to find the descendants of those children and invite them to see the papers, especially those still living in the area.

BYU professor Cynthia Finlayson brought her anthropology class to see the items and make suggestions about how to incorporate them into the museum. Finlayson said the items are in good condition and should be able to be preserved.

"These are things in old buildings that surface all the time," said Finlayson, a professor of archeology, anthropology and museum studies. "What's unique about these items is that it's the actual work of students that are really representative of the community here."

When the found student papers were written, the Pioneer Craft House was an elementary school called the Scott School. Now, it's a school for "lost arts," like weaving, quilting, sewing, jewelry-making, silver-smithing, and classes on making Native American flutes or Ukrainian eggs.

Smith and Hersman have big plans for incorporating the desks and teaching aids into the center, hopefully creating a mock classroom for community members and elementary school field trips.

But whatever ends up happening with the new finds, everyone there was excited about unveiling pieces of local history.

"This is great," McCullough said. "Last time I got in an attic it was after a burglary suspect, and I had a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other."

Shoemaker laughed and added, "Last time I did, I had a hose."

e-mail: ashaha@desnews.com

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