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A West Coast collector's great gift

October 29, 1997

Thirty-odd years ago, The Herald-Mail Company and the Washington County Free Library were located side-by-side on Summit Avenue, with only an alley separating them. When space got tight at the old library, officials there asked the paper to store an archive of local papers from the Civil War-era, papers that had never been microfilmed.

The alley is less that 20 feet wide, but somewhere on the journey across, the papers disappeared. As a result, for the past three decades, historians trying to determine what local life was like here during the Civil War and the years prior to it have had to make do with other sources, like private letters, journals, and the memories of Civil War vets who visited the battlefield 10 or more years later.

Had to make do until now, that is. A West Coast collector by the name of Joe Bloom has found a set of 75 copies of "The Herald of Freedom and Torch Light," for the war years, beginning in 1859. After some discussions with university officials in the northwest, Bloom made arrangements to have the collection microfilmed. That means that before the end of the year, it should be available through the local library for inspection.

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(Although the collection has been preserved on film and Bloom has purchased a safe in which to store the original papers, I am purposely being vague about Bloom's hometown, to prevent him from being victimized by thieves. He did agree to talk this week about how he got interested in Civil War history.)

"It was Ken Burns and the PBS series on the Civil War. I saw that and I said, `Here's an element of history that I've really missed,' " Bloom said.

Bloom said he began to read different histories of the conflict, becoming more interested with each book. His actual collecting began when he picked up an old musket, and now he's so immersed in the period that he says he's thinking about going to Gettysburg next year as a re-enactor.

When he first obtained the papers, Bloom said he really didn't realize their historical significance, and might not have if he hadn't seen Hagerstown Junior College history professor Tom Clemens, on the Arts & Entertainment Channel's weekly show "Civil War Journal."

"I saw the `Hagerstown' under his name and decided to contact him," Bloom said.

The two began a correspondence and Clemens put him in touch with John Frye, director of the library's Western Maryland room and one of Washington County's most knowledgeable Civil War historians. Frye had hoped to talk to Bloom when the latter made a trip to the East Coast this summer, but Bloom was on a tight schedule and when he arrived at the library, Frye was out.

On the spur of the moment, he dropped into the newspaper to talk to me. He wanted to return the area's local history, he said, but he didn't want to ship such a valauable collection across the country, and the nearest university didn't really seem excited enough about his find. But with the help of some very nice people in their media relations department, the university's documents people were convinced that it might be nice for their history department to get the first look at daily life in a community just north of the Antietam Battlefield.

Asked just how big a find this is, Clemens was ecstatic.

"It means a great deal. We are getting back a portion of our history that we lost, and it happened because of a very nice set of circumstances," Clemens said.

When the microfilm is available, Clemens said, "I'd love to think I could sit down and read through them page-by-page, although I'll probably skim through them at first."

Just looking at a photocopy of the Oct. 26, 1859 issue is fascinating.

The paper cost $1.50 a year - $2 if you waited until year's end to pay - and was printed by Mittag & Sneary, on the southeast corner of Public Square.

The front page is mostly advertisements, including one from photographer E.M. Recher, whose bonus to anyone who spent $1 or more was a picture of your choice of one of Hagerstown's prominent doctors or clergymen.

More sinister is the notice from Jos. T. Van Lear, near Williamsport, offering a 19-year-old slave woman for sale, and promising that "To a good master, a bargain will be given."

Clemens and I talked about how much more people have come to value historical artifacts in the past 30 years, and he agreed, saying, "I guess the message is that nothing is really insignicant."

What certainly isn't insignificant is the contribution of Joe Bloom, who might have used his find to make money, but instead felt it was his responsibility to give Washington County a large and important portion of its history back. The first person who writes a book based on this new information should dedicate the volume to him. On behalf of Washington County, thank you.

Bob Maginnis is editorial page editor of The Herald-Mail.

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