Chatham Historical Society Receives Major Donation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Local History

This Log Cabin pattern quilt was made by Priscilla E. Atwood in the late 1800s.

CHATHAM – In early June, while ramping up for the busy summer season, the staff at the Chatham Historical Society's Atwood House and Museum learned that within weeks, one of the largest donations the museum has received in several years would be arriving.

“It happened very quickly,” said Executive Director Danielle Jeanloz.

The donation came from Sears Atwood Eldredge, a Chatham native now living in St. Paul, Minn., and contained more than 300 items, ranging from a large secretary to beautiful quilts, thimbles and other everyday items, many dating from the 19th century, some originating in the Atwood House itself.

“These are things they had used in the house when they lived here,” said Janet Marjollet, the museum's costumes and textiles chair. Eldredge is the fifth great grandchild of Captain Joseph Atwood, who built the house that forms the core of the Atwood House and Museum on Stage Harbor Road.

Eldredge has donated items to the society in the past and promised more; now he and his wife are downsizing their home and a friend volunteered to drive the items to Chatham. Eldredge was born in Chatham in 1936 but only lived here for six years; his family moved to Orleans and Rhode Island, but he always spent summers at his grandmother's home in town. His grandmother, Lizzie Collins Atwood Eldredge, father, Raymond Atwood Eldredge, and other relatives are among the townspeople portrayed in the Alice Stallknecht murals displayed in the museum's Murals Barn. In an email, he said he remembers his grandmother sitting in the vestibule of the Congregational Church, where the murals were first displayed, explaining them to visitors.

“I can to love those murals,” he wrote. “When I gaze at them, I see many faces of family, relatives and townspeople I knew as a child.”

He was named for Sears Atwood, his grandmother's favorite grandfather, and many of the items belonged to him and other members of the Atwood family. A tinted portrait of Sears Atwood is among the donated items.

Marjollet and other staff members have spent the past several months cataloging the items and recently highlighted several of special interest.

The secretary is the largest item. It belonged to Lizzie Collins Atwood and was previously accepted as a part of the Atwood House collection. It is in good condition “but needs work,” Jeanloz said, and a donor has agreed to provide restoration funds. It will likely end up on display in the old house.

Eldredge said when his grandmother died, her belongs were distributed among her five children, but she stipulated that the secretary, her prized possession, eventually go to him, since it had belonged to her grandfather, and his namesake, Sears Atwood. It came to his family's Rhode Island home, where he found endless intrigue in the treasures inside it collected by family members over the years. There were painted rocks, celluloid combs, old books, photos, and antique hourglass, “all items that set my imagination sailing off to distant time and places,” he wrote. “Notebooks, letters – one from my great-great grandfather Sears Atwood to his parents during his first voyage to sea. The number of items – added to over the years by each generation – seemed endless.”

After his parents died, Eldredge inherited the secretary and it moved with him to Michigan, Indiana and finally Minnesota, where he retired in 2004 as chairman of the teacher and dance department at Macalester College. Now, as the couple moves into a retirement community, it was time to “send the Atwood secretary and its contents where it probably should have gone on my grandmother's death: to the old Atwood House and the Chatham Historical Society.”

The contents of the secretary were “fascinating,” Marjollet said. They included many documents, books, glassware, clothing, accessories, sewing tools and other items. A carved “nut ivory” case in the shape of an acorn holds a metal bladed thimble. A buttonhole cutter with a black handle is marked “Walcott's Patent June 27, 1862.” Even Marjollet had never seen one item, which research revealed to be a metal rug hooking tool.

Among the items was a pair of metal ice skates. Astonishingly, a skate key previously donated by Camille Ann Atwood, Eldredge's third cousin once removed, fit the skates.

Other interesting items include a children's educational toy which dates from the late 1800s; an antique wooden hourglass; and an aluminum case designed to hold three cigars with “Chatham, Mass.” engraved in the center. It dates from around 1940. A “Hi-Lex” bleach glass with the name Eldredge printed on the side is another curiosity. It appears to date from mid-20th century and may have been related to the Eldredge Laundry. “We haven't researched that yet,” Jeanloz said.

Two quilts were also highlights of the collection. Both are “Log Cabin” pattern quilts, one mostly of wool fabrics and another created with a variety of silks. A card pinned to one of the quilts states that it was one of the last works of Priscilla E. Atwood, who was born in 1839 and died in 1893. Sears Eldredge indicated the other quilt was the first made by his grandmother Lizzie Atwood Collins sometime in the late 1800s.

Although both are in poor condition and require some restoration, “we just thought they were stunning,” Jeanloz said. They are among the 86 or so of the donated items that will become part of the museum's costume and textile collection.

Many of the items are still going through the museum's accession process and while some will end up on display, others will go into storage, where about 70 percent of the collection is held at any one time.

“People are very generous in this community,” Jeanloz said. “They value the history and stories behind it.”

The Sears Atwood Eldredge collection is special, however.

“This has added so much to our collection,” said Marjollet. The items are not all in perfect condition and their value may not be high, but more importantly, many have a personal connection to the Atwood family and the house. “These are things people used in this house. They're coming right back to where they belong.”

“Fortunately, they were quite the collectors and held on to these things,” said Jeanloz. “Every piece has a story. We've just kind of scratched the surface.”