Monday, November 16, 2009
150-year-old mystery in Athol may be revealed: TOWN'S OWN "NATIONAL TREASURE"
By George Barnes TELEGRAM & GAZETTE STAFF
ATHOL — It is as close to a real treasure hunt as the town could imagine — a
bit of a mystery, clues in old documents, and an eclectic group of people looking
“It's like Athol's own version of ‘National Treasure,' ” Athol Historical Society
President Susannah Whipps-Lee said, referring to the two movies about
historical treasure hunting starring Nicolas Cage.
Mrs. Whipps-Lee will meet with the Board of Selectmen tonight to request
permission to remove an obelisk monument in Hapgood Street Cemetery in the
hope of retrieving 300 pages of documents and whatever else is found stored
The monument is about 10 feet tall. It was erected in the cemetery, which is also
called Old Indian Cemetery or Settlers Burial Ground, 150 years ago and
dedicated on a bitter cold July 4, 1859. The event was well noted in local papers
and the town's history, but what escaped notice over the years was what was
When the monument was erected, the documents were carefully placed in a
glass jar and inserted into a tube inside the stone obelisk before schoolchildren
pulling on ropes raised it into place.
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said that although she has spent a considerable amount of
time reading town's historical documents, the fact of the hidden documents
escaped her notice until she was contacted by Athol High School teacher Keith
Mr. Williams, a history teacher, discovered a notation about the documents in
William Lord's “History of Athol.” He said he made the discovery as a result of a
discussion with a colleague who insisted a cemetery on Pleasant Street was the
oldest in town. Mr. Williams said he was sure the Hapgood Street Cemetery was
older. To prove his point, he went to the town history and discovered he was
correct. He also found that there might be something of a treasure hidden in the
Mr. Williams said he wanted confirmation of the existence of the documents, so
he contacted Richard Chaisson, a retired Telegram & Gazette reporter, who was
able to find further evidence in his files.
Mr. Williams then contacted Mrs. Whipps-Lee, and the treasure hunt was on.
“Who knows between now and then what will be there,” he said. “But whatever
there is, it really lends itself to wanting to open it up and see what is there.”
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said the removal of the monument would be difficult as the
cemetery is fenced in with limited town access to the 132-foot-by-62-foot lot.
She said she contacted Public Works Director Douglas Walsh, who then spoke
with Richard Verock of Athol Granite.
“He felt he could come up with a way to safely and respectfully lift it up and get
the documents out,” she said.
The cemetery may be the burial ground of 40 of the town's settlers, although the
number is unclear as the graves are unmarked and documents list only a
handful buried there.
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said when the cemetery was first used in the 1700s, the
settlers were under threat of attack by Indian tribes that passed through the
Marking the graves would have tipped off any hostile force about how many
settlers were dead.
The documents in the monument are mostly known. They include a record of the
ceremony dedicating the monument, including speeches given by two ministers;
the Athol Directory and Advertiser for 1858; the town valuation from 1856; Athol
school reports for 1858 and 1859; and records of meetings that resulted in the
burying ground being reconsecrated.
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said she has no idea if the documents were stored well enough
to last 150 years. Town Clerk Nancy E. Burnham has contacted Gregory
Trinkaus-Randall, a preservation specialist with the state Board of Library
Commissioners, who has agreed to be on hand to assist in dealing with the old
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said the documents may be just a pile of dust or a ball of
mush, but it is worth finding out.
She said she also hopes for undocumented surprises, possibly personal items
placed with the documents by those involved with placing the monument in 1859.
“We're hoping after they are removed, the documents can be put on display,”
If there is anything left of them, the documents would also be professionally
preserved before being put on display.
At an old burial site, a tall monument stands and beneath it is what historians believe are records of all people buried here, as well as possibly other historically significant documents. (T&G Photo/MARK C. IDE)
Old jar offers glimpse of past Time capsule was buried about 1850
By Paula J. Owen CORRESPONDENT
Article published Feb 3, 2010
ATHOL — Athol may have unveiled several unknown pieces of its history yesterday from inside an old pickle jar buried underneath a 10-foot obelisk monument in the oldest cemetery in town.
Athol Historical Society President Susannah Whipps-Lee said the time capsule — which has yet to be opened — was made from an old glass container that looked like a pickle jar with a rusted metal screw top. It was buried about 150 years ago, she explained, in what is known as the Old Indian Cemetery or Settlers Burial Ground, which has no gravestones.
“Cemeteries with no stones were sad places,” Mrs. Whipps-Lee said. “Grave markers at that time were the only documentation that someone existed, but settlers were concerned with not showing how many people had passed, and didn’t use markers.”
The discovery of the 150-year-old time capsule, with possibly 300 historical documents inside it, was made by Athol history teacher Keith Williams. Mr. Williams read about the hidden treasure in a book of the town’s history and contacted officials to help verify the discovery.
After confirming from documents it existed, Athol Granite Works volunteered to move the obelisk free of charge. The work was done yesterday morning, but Mrs. Whipps-Lee said officials are waiting for experts to open it owing to severe deterioration of its contents over the years.
Finding any information from the mid 1800s that a particular person lived in Athol is a “big find,” she said.
“Statistics from that time are lost. When people had children, documents just state ‘daughter’ or ‘son,’ but didn’t say names. The possibility to find names and a little bit more history — that kind of stuff you can’t get back.”
Mrs. Whipps-Lee said officials are hoping to find a student roster in the jar, perhaps containing some of the names of the schoolchildren who lifted the huge, heavy monument up with ropes to its resting place in the cemetery. History books say this happened in the “freezing cold” on July 4, 1859, with an inch of ice on the ground.
“It is a very significant find, especially if there is some school records in the jar,” she said. “We don’t really have school records from 1858 and 1859.”
Last night, Mrs. Whipps-Lee said, selectmen were presented with the jar as the town’s cemetery commissioners.
Replicas of the documents contained in the jar will be placed in a stainless steel time capsule along with thumb drives containing a current Athol High School year book and school records, a street list and other items. The material will be buried beneath the monument in what is now known as the Hapgood Street Cemetery in the next few days, she said.
“It’s amazing so much information can be kept on a few thumb sticks,” she said. “We’ll do everything we can to pack them properly and in 150 years from now or whenever they decide to open them, hopefully they’ll have the technology to view them.”