SHARON — This year marks the 125th anniversary of the Trustees of Reservations, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “preserve, for public use and enjoyment, properties of exceptional scenic, historic, and ecological value in Massachusetts.”
With well more than 100 properties throughout the Commonwealth, the organization cares for a diverse variety of places, from historic homes such as the Old Manse in Concord to gorgeous gardens like Mytoi on Martha’s Vineyard. Sometimes the nonprofit inherits a property lock, stock, and barrel, with every book and piece of furniture intact, or there might be a barn stacked with items workers have to sort through looking to understand the past. Everything from full suits of armor to hidden stashes of letters has been unearthed, and what to do with it all has been an ongoing concern.
With more than 30,000 objects (and counting), there’s no way the Trustees can display all the materials it has collected, so many are stored at its Archives and Research Center in Sharon. Eventually, the Trustees hope to have an online catalog of their treasures. While the ARC, as the center is nicknamed, is not open to the public, the Globe was allowed to take a peek at some of the more unusual items in the collection. Christie Jackson, senior curator, explained where some of these more fascinating items came from and why they are significant.
Charles Eliot’s scrapbook
Too delicate to display in public, this scrapbook put together by Trustees founder Charles Eliot beginning in 1889 — two years before Eliot founded the organization – was somewhat ludicrously discovered in a closet at Long Hill. It’s filled with newspaper clippings about the wider movement to protect open land at the time, properties that might need protection, and, later, the new organization itself. He even saved the first mailing he ever sent out about the Trustees, as well as the membership form he included with it. It is one of the only things the Trustees owns that belonged to him. Most are at Harvard University.
Samurai armor, circa 1500-1700
Discovered packed away at the Stevens-Coolidge Place in North Andover, a suit of samurai armor, dating from the 16th to 17th century, contains 13 pieces. The suit has gilt clan symbols on it, which the Trustees are currently researching in the hopes of discovering more about it. John Gardner Coolidge held several diplomatic posts in his career and was appointed Secretary of the US Legation in Peking, China, just after the Boxer Rebellion. The family picked up all sort of souvenirs in its world travels, most left in place when the house was donated to the Trustees in the 1950s.
Also found at the Stevens-Coolidge Place, this charming set of dollhouse furniture belonged to John Gardner Coolidge’s wife, Helen Stevens-Coolidge, whose family owned the estate dating back to 1792. Jackson said that furniture, like these examples, was often made by patient family members for loved ones. It was a time when Victorians had just started making toys and the items reflect the decorative tastes of the late 19th century, including the revival of gothic design, and the use of marble on heavy, ornately carved furniture. It was not until the early 20th century that toy companies began mass production of the pint-size forms.
Locket of Una Hawthorne’s hair
One would think that the Old Manse in Concord, the home of the Rev. William Emerson, the place where Emerson’s grandson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote “Nature,” and later where Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride, Sophia, lived, would have no more secrets to share, but not so. Recently, a locket of Una Hawthorne, Nathaniel and Sophia Hawthorne’s first-born daughter, was discovered tucked away in a desk drawer in the house. Remembrances of loved ones in the 19th century were a common practice and Victorians loved their hair jewelry. It is no surprise, then, that a locket of Una’s hair was preserved by the family, said Jackson.
Fletcher Steele’s slide
The large wood-and-brass projector, complete with glass slides, belonged to landscape architect Fletcher Steele, who designed the gardens and outbuildings that surround the historic home of Naumkeag in Stockbridge. Steele was tasked with restoring the 1740 Mission House on the property for Mabel Choate in 1926. Calling it a sort of preliminary “power point projector,” Jackson said Steele would take this cutting-edge technology for the times on the road in the 1920s to promote his project at garden club meetings and lectures.
World War I first aid kit
It’s pretty rare for a first aid kit to survive any war, so this intact example with all its medicines (in glass tubes!) and bandages is pretty unique, not to mention rather stylishly designed. Found at Appleton Farms, it belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Frances Randall Appleton Jr. and is inscribed with his initials. Appleton Farms (1638) is the oldest continuously operating farm in the United States and has one of the largest archival collection of ledgers, receipts, diaries, photographs and correspondence of the Appleton family.
“General Washington” Staffordshire figurine of
This mislabeled figurine, found at Appleton Farms, is supposed to depict George Washington, but clearly the artist was working from an image of Benjamin Franklin. Was it done on purpose as some sort of joke or was it a mistake? Jackson said, “Many of these figurines came out of Staffordshire, England, at a time when Americans in the Early Republic were eager to show their patriotism. Even then, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin were important figures and household names. So, the mislabeled figure was as surprisingly humorous then as it is today.”
Farmer’s love letter
Who doesn’t love a good riddle? This clever postcard, found at the Cormier Woods Trustees property in Uxbridge, was printed in 1909. It’s a rebus, a type of word puzzle that uses pictures to symbolize words or parts of words. The Trustees don’t know if the postcard was meant for anyone special. There are other postcards in the collection of letters they found, but they mainly contain holiday greetings or are related to D. James Cormier’s military service. The postcard, with vegetable images used as words to fill in for a marriage proposal, remains a mystery.Kim Foley MacKinnon can be reached at kimfoleymackinnon