Schenectady County

Quick freezing leaves hope for salvage of historical trove

Schenectady County Historical Society librarian Melissa Tacke wasn’t sure what she’d be able to salv

Schenectady County Historical Society librarian Melissa Tacke wasn’t sure what she’d be able to salvage from the collection stored in Rotterdam historian Dick Whalen’s basement.

The house on Main Street in Rotterdam Junction remained submerged in floodwater for more than three days after Hurricane Irene struck, and many suspected Whalen’s trove of historical photos were a total loss. But Tacke remained confident she could save some parts of the collection, even if it meant keeping large volumes of it in a frozen state until a proper restoration effort could be attempted.

“I said we might be able to salvage some things,” she recalled recently.

About a week after the flood on Aug. 29, Tacke and Merritt Glennon, the historical society’s vice president, received permission from Whalen’s family to go through a pile of material they pulled from the basement and stacked in a first-floor office. Methodically, they pored through binders Whalen had kept locked away in three old refrigerators.

Some of the collection was clearly beyond salvage. But the vast majority of the historical photographs — some of the most treasured pieces of the collection — appeared as though they might be in good enough condition to be rescued.

Whalen had meticulously organized a majority of the collection into the binders. Many of the historical photographs — some dating back to the late 19th century and early 20th century — were contained in plastic sleeves.

“There was quite a bit there and I knew we had to prioritize some materials over others,” she said. “Anything I saw that contained at least one original document or one original photograph I set aside so we could salvage the material later.”

Those materials that appeared salvageable were taken to the Schenectady Museum to be frozen in a lab freezer until they can be professionally restored. Freezing the items can prevent mold from causing further damage, said museum curator Chris Hunter.

“What’s most important is to freeze the materials before they dry and before mold forms on them,” he said. “If you’re able to do both of those things, then there’s probably a chance of saving them.”

Tacke, Glennon and John Ackner, the historical society’s custodian, were able to fill all 20 cubic feet of the museum’s freezer with materials they saved from Whalen’s home. They also filled up an unused commercial freezer at Ackner’s mother-in-law’s home with items they hope can be saved in the future.

As fate would have it, Whalen’s entire collection was expected to have been transferred to the third floor of the George E. Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm after its opening in Rotterdam Junction later this week. Whalen, a former historical society trustee, had indicated he would bring the materials to the center once it was completed.

But the flooding from Irene struck first. Whalen had stowed many of the items in three old refrigerators in the hope that they would survive a calamity, but water ultimately seeped into them. All but three binders were soaked.

Whalen’s home was also left severely damaged by the flood. Earlier this month he moved out of the hamlet where he spent all but a few years of his life, doubting that he will ever reside there again.

Tacke said the situation with Whalen’s surviving collection is far from ideal, since it’s tough to say what can be salvaged and how much restoration will cost. But she’s glad the items are in a state where they are protected from further damage.

“It’s difficult to tell how much is actually going to be salvageable, but at least there’s a chance,” she said.

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