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Rochester librarians are finding rare treasures in their downtown collection

photo of historic deed
Jacob Walsh
Rochester Central Library has a deed dated March 21, 1792, for the sale of the first plot of land in the city of Rochester. The seller of the property was Ebenezer Allan; the buyer was entrepreneur Benjamin Barton. The 100-acre parcel was along the Genesee River.

On a recent morning at the Rundel Memorial Building of the Rochester Public Library, librarian Bob Scheffel rolls a long, metal cart out of a storage area.

Piled on top of the cart are rare books and other historical gems that predate the building itself and some which are centuries old.

A man pours over documents
Jacob Walsh
Librarian Bob Scheffel looks through old documents at Rochester Central Library. Scheffel has been tasked with cataloguing the library's many historical items, which will eventually be highlighted in special displays.

Scheffel, who said he is familiar with many of the items in his 40-plus years with the library, is in the process of identifying dozens of relics the library is preparing to showcase.

This process started after Scheffel and his colleagues started rediscovering items they hadn’t seen in a while. That can happen with a collection of books and other materials numbering 582,241 in the Rundel Building alone, according to a recent estimate. They found some surprises in the voluminous collection.

"We were coming across stuff that were making our jaw drop," he said.

Like a complete set of Edward Curtis photographs.

At the start of the 20th century, Curtis traveled deep into Native American territory to document their way of life before the federal government destroyed it.

Scheffel said they just happened to stumble upon these volumes in the library's stacks.

"We decided that we needed to start addressing these items more," he said. "Obviously, we had some gems on hand. We didn't want to see them go to waste or just disappear if somebody had a sharp idea to come in and, you know, make some money on eBay."

A page from American Woods
Jacob Walsh
Librarian Bob Scheffel shows a page from Hough's "American Woods." The 14-volume set was published in 1888. It contains razor-thin samples of wood from hundreds of varieties of North American trees.

Other treasures include Hough's "American Woods," published in 1888. The dark green cloth volumes contain page after page of paper-thin slices of wood samples from hundreds of varieties of North American trees. Scheffel was proud to display three volumes from this collection, but was later thrilled to learn that the library had the entire 14-volume set in storage.

That was recent history compared to what we saw next. Encased in a protective plastic sleeve is a piece of paper that's so old, it's turned brown. It's the "Indian Allan" deed, documenting the first plot of land sold in 1792, in what would become the city of Rochester.

The seller of the property was Ebenezer Allan; the buyer was entrepreneur Benjamin Barton.

"Ebenezer Allan (was) quite the character," Scheffel said. "He was also called 'Indian Allan' because he consorted with the Native Americans at the time. But they were in the process of building mills along the river, and Barton wanted some of that. The fact is, this is ground zero for the city."

RPL-Brooks notes.png
Jacob Walsh
Librarian Bob Scheffel points to a handwritten note in the margin of the 1971 memoir "W.C. Fields and Me." Scheffel believes this and other notes found in the book were written by silent film star Louise Brooks, who once lived in Rochester and was seen at the Central Library on South Avenue. This note, in reference to a lack of attribution in a story, says, "Where there are no names, there is no story worth believing."

A book from the library's biography section would not have drawn any special interest were it not for the famous reader who commented on it.

"W.C. Fields and Me" is a memoir written by the comedian and actor's mistress, Carlotta Monti, and published in 1971. In the margins throughout the book are handwritten notes, which Scheffel believes were penned by the silent film star Louise Brooks, who lived in Rochester on North Goodman Street decades after her Hollywood career.

After a library patron, who Scheffel identified as a "Louise Brooks fanatic," noticed the handwriting, he said the library staff used online resources to confirm that the writing was Brooks'.

Scattered across the volume's margins are unabashed critiques such as, "Without booze and money, this book would be 120 blank pages," and referring to Monti, "this unknown dame's sacrifices for Fields are heartbreaking."

A more mysterious handwritten letter may be of interest to those who find fascination in spiritualism.

An open book with scrawly letters and words
Jacob Walsh
The backward, cursive words on this piece of paper are an example of spirit writing. The practice, in which the writer believed their hand was guided by an otherworldly force, was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The library has a sample of spirit writing, otherwise known as psychography or automatic writing, in which the writer believed some outside force was guiding their hand, delivering a message from beyond.

The writing on this yellowed page is a large, cursive scrawl written backward by Georgiana Sears, who believed she was channeling a message from George Crittenden. The letter is undated, but spiritualism was popular from around 1840 to the 1920s.

These treasures are what Scheffel calls the "tip of the iceberg" of the historical material at the Rochester Central Library. There are also autographs of historic figures, including George Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and William Seward. There are also an assortment of Frederick Douglass newspapers, videocassette recordings of old television shows, dolls from across the globe, and much more.

"I'm finding more stuff every day," Scheffel said.

The library plans to promote the items and put them on display from time to time. But Scheffel said there is no set timeline yet. He said the task of cataloguing everything may take quite a while.

In the meantime, any library patron can peruse the special material, perhaps under the watchful eye of a librarian who knows how valuable they are.

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.