By Celia Caust-Ellenbogen
More often than you’d think, we hear stories of valuable archival materials being rescued from trash heaps. For goodness’ sake, it even happened with some of William Penn’s papers–charged with the task of shredding Penn family documents in 1870, a “Mr. X” grew bored of his work and sold the lot for pulp to a paper mill instead. From there, luckily, the papers found their way to an auction house, and many of those same documents are now safely housed at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.* Yet another reason to thank savvy trash-pickers is the Sheaff journals at the Highlands Historical Society.
The Highlands Mansion & Gardens is a beautiful historic property in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. The house was purchased by Philadelphia wine merchant George Sheaff (1779-1851) in 1813, and his family continued to inhabit the mansion for over 100 years. Sheaff was interested in “progressive” agriculture and scientific farming, and the grounds blossomed under his hand. The most notable change that Sheaff made to the property was the addition of the two-acre garden which remains today.
After the last owner of the property (Emily Sinkler Roosevelt) died in 1970, the executors cleaning out the mansion tossed a lot of the papers they found cached around the building. Luckily, one day when they had amassed a particularly large stack of documents in their bonfire pile, the daughter of the Highlands’s former caretaker happened to be feeling nostalgic. She noticed about 20 journals on the mound, and rescued them from the impending flames. The journals turned out to belong to the Sheaff family, and together with several similar volumes preserved by others, they document with incredible detail the daily life of the family over a span of 66 years, 1838-1904.
Today, those ledgers are an extraordinary resource for learning about the history of the Highlands, including George Sheaff’s experiments with “progressive” agriculture, and changes to the property. More generally, they offer a fascinating, intimate window into the activities and events in the life of one 19th-century family. In other words, these journals are definitely not trash. Some times the best things come from the most unexpected places.
You can learn more about the Highlands Historical Society, and the mansion and garden they operate, at http://www.highlandshistorical.org/. Email INFO@HIGHLANDSHISTORICAL.ORG or call 215-641-2687 for more information.
*Wainwright, Nicholas B. “The Penn Collection.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 87, No. 4 (Oct., 1963), pp. 393-419. Accessed November 22, 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20089651. Page 9.