CHATHAM — A downtown landmark for more than a century, the large livery barn at the former Eldredge Garage will likely go under the wrecking ball this week, deemed unsafe to use and impractical to restore. But before being reduced to rubble, the historic building had a secret treasure for preservationists.
Deep in the basement of the old building, perhaps untouched for the better part of a century, was a horse-drawn sleigh once used to deliver groceries to Chatham's residents in the winter.
Last Tuesday, Chatham Historical Society volunteer Don St. Pierre noticed Lester Eldredge working at the property. Built around 1904 by one of Eldredge's ancestors, Joseph D. Eldredge, the barn housed horses and buggies that were used to pick up passengers from the railroad station. When automobiles became prevalent, the business became a service station, an operation that continued until 1974.
At various times, parts of the building were used to house the town's fire engines and a bus, and it was a favorite gathering place for townsfolk for square dances, cribbage games or community dinners. A local chapter of the social club known as the Red Men held their meetings there as well. More recently, the Eldredge family has used the land as a paid parking lot and a shuttle service to Lighthouse Beach.
Eldredge showed St. Pierre the sleigh, and St. Pierre called in Kevin Wright of the historical society to have a good look.
The wooden sleigh, reinforced with ironwork, had sideboards bearing “Atwood Store, Groceries” in fancy script lettering. Levi Atwood opened the store in 1849 on what is now Stage Harbor Road, later moving it to what is now 513 Main St., the site of Bluefins Sushi and Sake Bar. Selling groceries and dry goods, the store remained in operation for more than 100 years. St. Pierre guesses that the sleigh remained the best means of delivering goods in the wintertime until automobiles became prevalent in town.
Seeing the sleigh, the preservationists knew they were on to something special, particularly since the old grocery store shared the same name as the historical society's museum: the Atwood House.
“It's an exciting project,” historical society Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz said. But she had two key concerns: finding the funds to restore the sleigh and finding the space to ultimately display it.
The Eldredge family confirmed that some other history buffs, Don and Ronald Meservey and Gilbert Borthwick, had seen the sleigh years earlier and expressed interest in restoring it, but had never gotten around to the project. St. Pierre tracked them down by phone and said they were willing to take on the work and the associated costs.
As for space, Jeanloz said the Atwood House Museum currently has another sleigh on display, though its connection to Chatham is less clear. Once the Atwood sleigh is restored, the museum will convene a special committee to review it and decide whether it belongs in their collection, and whether it might replace the existing sleigh.
But with those hypotheticals aside, the preservationists had more pressing concerns, namely recovering the artifact from the barn a few days before the whole place was scheduled to be reduced to rubble. The removal of the barn is required by an agreement that paved the way for the town purchase of the property for $2.5 million in January, allowing the land to be used for downtown parking or open space.
St. Pierre borrowed a trailer from Ryder's Cove Boatyard to transport the sleigh to temporary quarters. But when volunteers gingerly lifted the artifact, “it fell apart,” he said. “There isn't much left in one piece.” The iron work is largely intact, but the wooden pieces came apart. Volunteers collected the pieces and trucked them to a covered storage space in West Chatham.
Aside from “a lot of work,” there don't appear to be any obstacles to restoring the sleigh, St. Pierre said. He praised Borthwick and the Meserveys for taking the project on. Jeanloz said a lot of the credit goes to St. Pierre, who also salvaged 200 bricks from the Eldredge Garage for use in an upcoming exhibit.
“That's a prime example of what Donnie does,” she said. “He's really the ultimate recycler, in a way. A preservationist.”
Ideally, the restoration of the sleigh could begin late this spring.