Dozens of treasures are hidden in the archives of the Kentucky Historical Society, including Soviet anti-aircraft guns, gilded shoulder decorations from a Mexican general and phony Paul Sawyier paintings.
With limited space for exhibits and displays, tens of thousands of artifacts and documents are kept in storage in the second floor of the Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. The State Journal recently got a behind-the-scenes tour of the archives.
Among the highlights were several Cold War-era Soviet anti-aircraft machine guns known as ZPUs. The KHS has several, including a double-barreled ZPU-2 and a ZPU-4 featuring four .50 caliber guns.
Soldiers in the Kentucky National Guard captured the guns during Operation Desert Storm and brought them back to Frankfort, said Trevor Jones, director of collections and exhibits.
The guns are often seen on TV news coverage of the revolt in Libya, Trevor Jones said, because the Soviets sent hundreds to the military of Moammar Gadhafi during the Cold War. The guns are too old to shoot down modern jet fighters and bombers but can damage helicopters, Trevor Jones said.
The Mexican shoulder decorations, called epaulettes, were worn by Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Ann and are also in storage.
They were captured by U.S. troops during the Mexican-American War in 1847, Trevor Jones said, and feature gold leaf and glass sequins.
“They are extremely ornate,” he said.
Illinois troops claimed Santa Ann’s wooden leg, which is on display at the National Guard museum in Springfield.
Although the KHS is not an art museum, it has more than 500 paintings, including more than 100 by Sawyier. Trevor Jones said the Sawyier collections span the artist’s entire career but also includes 10 likely forgeries.
“Art clubs would paint from Paul Sawyier paintings and copy them or go to the same sites he went to and paint them,” he said.
“A lot of them will say Jane Smith in the style of Paul Sawyier. But some of ours, somebody came back later and signed Sawyier’s signature. Originally, they were not trying to forge it, but somebody decided it would be worth a lot more if Paul Sawyier’s signature was on it.”
Research indicated about 10 paintings in the KHS collection were not authentic, Trevor Jones said.
“Some are very easy to tell, but I’d like to do an exhibit some time and put all those up, including the 10 forgeries, and ask people to spot them,” he said.
Visitors often ask why Sawyier paintings are not on display more often, he said, explainining it’s because Sawyier painted with watercolors, which are very sensitive to light.
“Any exposure to light will fade them. One of the things we try to do is balance our stewardship with the idea of showing people as well. Anytime you put anything on display, you are putting it at risk of damage.”
Other large collections in the KHS archives include rifles and machine guns from World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam wars. One oddity included a wooden club with a metal spikes used in trench warfare during the First World War.
Trevor Jones said he’d like to increase the number of sporting and hunting weapons in the KHS collections. Sometimes, he said, the KHS will also turn down requests to donate items if they already have similar artifacts.
“We’re less interested in the intrinsic thing itself, but rather what it can tell us as a story,” Trevor Jones said.
Sometimes donors bring in live ammunition when they give a firearm to the KHS collection. It’s stored in a freezer. Once, Trevor Jones said, a woman pulled a Model 1851 Colt Navy revolver from the Civil War out of her purse and pointed it at him before asking him to examine it.
“I took my hand and pushed the barrel down to the ground,” he said. “It’s one of those things that makes your heart skip. You’ve got to treat every weapon as if it is potentially loaded.”
The Churchill Weavers collection is the largest in the KHS archives, he said. Donated in 2007, original estimates placed the total number of scarves, swatches, baby blankets and other items at about 40,000, but the number is probably closer to 120,000.
“The Churchill Weavers saved samples of everything they ever produced,” he said. “We can basically reconstruct what they were doing at any given time.”
The collection was originally stored in acidic cardboard boxes and a special assistant is putting them all in non-acidic containers. She’s also cataloguing the items, photographing them and placing the images in the KHS online database.
“It’s hard for researchers to use the items right now,” Trevor Jones said. “Our goal is to be able to get that stuff out. If we just put it in storage, there’s not a lot of purpose to having it.”
To view the online database visit http://history.ky.gov/objects.
Adding Civil War artifacts to the online database is also a priority, Trevor Jones said. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of war between Northern and Southern armies.
The process of cataloging and inspecting items is an ongoing process, he said.
When an item is catalogued, it includes a cabinet number, shelf location and sometimes a box number. That makes it easy to quickly locate pieces; however, sometimes things can go wrong.
A set of Henry Clay’s engraved gold cuff links went missing for about 10 years, Trevor Jones said. While entering the location information, a worker transposed some numbers and entered the incorrect location.
The cuff links were only found years later by chance when a staff member opened the box looking for something else, he said.
In addition to tens of thousands of artifacts, the KHS also has thousands of historic documents and images.
Louise Jones, director of special collections and the KHS library, said the documents help illustrate the lives of Kentuckians. She is not related to Trevor Jones.
Some significant collections include the Alexander family papers, more than 11,000 post cards collected by a state employee and thousands of photos from a portrait photographer in Winchester.
Members of the Alexander family left Scotland in approximately 1800 and came to Virginia before settling in Franklin and Woodford counties. The family founded Woodburn Farm, which was revived as Airdrie Stud in 1972. Former Gov. Brereton Jones and his wife Libby now own the 2,500-acre farm.
“The collection gives a multigenerational glimpse into emigration to the United States,” Louise Jones said. “The Alexander family is American history. There is no aspect of American history you can’t get from this collection.”
The papers were donated in 2003 and arrived in dozens of boxes. Louise Jones said the collection has been condensed and reorganized for archival uses.
“It could fill a room in your house,” she said.
Letters and business records from the collection cover many major events in U.S. history, including the Civil War and World War I.
One of the oldest pieces in the Alexander collection is a marriage contract from 1509 written in Latin on animal hide. However, Louise Jones said her two years of Latin lessons in middle school couldn’t help her translate the document.
William Ogden, a portrait photographer in Winchester from the 1920s to 1960s, also covered many aspects of life in central Kentucky during the 20th century. His collection includes 10,000 photographic negatives, of which 3,000 have been processed, that depict weddings, portraits, sports teams and businesses.
Although most of the events are identified, it’s unclear who is pictured in the photos, Louise Jones said. For instance, there’s an image of the 1941 Clark County basketball team, but the individual members aren’t identified.
One player sitting in the center of the 1941 team photo is almost as tall as the players standing behind him. The KHS is working with researchers to help determine who’s portrayed in each photo, Louise Jones said.
Ron Morgan was a state employee who collected post cards from about 1880 to 1945. He often collected multiple images of the same city at different times showing how things changed, Louise Jones said.
For instance, a set of post cards shows Frankfort in the month of August during different years. One is from 1905 with horse-drawn carriages in the streets, one shows the city mostly under water during the flood of 1907, one shows early automobiles on the road in 1912 and one modern sedans parked on the street in 1935.
“You get a real sense of change through time,” Louise Jones said. “Geographically, it covers the entire state. It resonates with anyone who touches it.”
About 700 postcards are included in the KHS online database, but that’s only a drop in the bucket, she said. Eventually, she hopes to include at least one image from every geographic location.
“This is the kind of collection I never tire of pulling out,” Louise Jones said. “It’s not the 1792 Kentucky constitution, but it’s pretty spectacular.”