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People and Places: Touching History

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Historian, archivist working to preserve history one document at a time

By Forrest Berkshire, Editor

For Josh Brands and Mary Ellen Moore, history is a hands-on experience.

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The duo spend their days handling Nelson County history in the basement of the county clerk’s office, where they are indexing and restoring thousands of documents.

Moore is a historian and Brands a trained archivist. Between his love of old paper and her passion for piecing together the stories behind them, the two are putting the pieces together of Nelson County’s history like a jigsaw puzzle.

Much of the work involves poring over centuries-old documents that recorded wills, property transfers, deeds and all manner of routine filings required at the county clerk’s office.

But occasionally, they come across a gem.

For instance, while Brands was sorting through a box one day of random papers that had been placed randomly in a box years ago, he came across a bond signed by Abraham Lincoln’s grandfather.

A former monk at Gethsemane, Brands is not prone to outbursts, but he couldn’t contain himself once it dawned on him what he had discovered.

“I was jumping up and down,” he said.

There are quite a few documents that are obviously of great historical significance to Nelson County, such as the oldest document they have found, signed by Virginia Governor Patrick Henry naming the county justices of the peace from 1785.

But the thousands of other hand-written papers have their own interesting stories and context, Moore said.

Moore is a genealogist, and said much of the work has moved online, but it’s not the same for her because that medium loses the texture of the lives recorded.

“I don’t like doing my genealogy on the Internet because it’s so black and white. These records help you fill in all those spots.”

She said the reader gets a feel for the lives of the people by reading about their tombstones, what they bought, how they made their living, their tools and other details. She has even found receipts where people took their pay in bourbon.

While Moore loves piecing together the stories behind the paper, for Brands, much of the love from his work comes from the tactile nature of preserving the documents.

“You’re in touch with history,” he said, when handling the papers. “There’s something about the old records that have just always been interesting to me,” Brands said. “The more history I learn about the county the more incredibly rich this becomes for me.”

Much of the paper is soiled and brittle. Depending on the make of the paper and the ink used, some have begun to deteriorate.

That’s where Brand’s training as an archivist comes into play. He restores the documents by first cleaning the dirt off the paper using a soft eraser. Once he has a document as clean as he can get it with the eraser, he washes it in a tray filled with distilled water. This replaces some of the moisture to the paper, giving it flexibility so it is not so brittle. After drying it in unbleached paper towels, he places books on it to flatten it.

Once dry and flattened, Brands uses special tape to repair any rips.

“Everything we do is reversible,” he said, which is critical from an archival standpoint.

With so much to choose from, Brand and Moore break up the work by projects.

Some time ago Brands took on the project of indexing all the slave documents on file. Slaves were often listed as property for tax purposes. They have also found other documents, such as an advertisement for a pending slave sale and the emancipation letter for a former slave in Bardstown, Narcissa, whose owner freed her upon her death and willed her a house in which to live that still stands today at 213 E. Stephen Foster Ave. Narcissa eventually sold the home to buy the freedom of her two sons.

He worked for six months on the project, building a computer index to make future research more efficient.

Brands and Moore say they will never get to all of the documents. They are working toward the goal of indexing and cataloging the documents so that other people can someday build on their work.

But while they are working on a project they know they will never see completed, they take joy in the nature of the task. 

“Every day I’m looking forward to ‘What are we going to find today?’ ” Moore said. 

“We’re never ever bored with what we’re doing.”