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The Journal Gazette

  • Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette The History Center has new awnings, restoring it to its appearance at the turn of the century, thanks to a scrap of cloth discovered during renovations.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016 3:18 am

Old critter prompts new look for Center

Frank Gray

Next time you get a bird or a squirrel in your attic, pause for a moment before you panic and ponder the positive side.

Birds and squirrels, like humans, carry baggage, and occasionally they leave some of it behind.

The History Center can tell you about that.

Sometime in the past – 50 years ago, 100 years ago, no one can say for sure – back when the old building at Berry and Barr streets served as the city hall, complete with a dungeon-like jail in the basement, some type of critter found its way into the attic above the old courtroom, now called the Shields Room.

That critter, whatever it was, brought something with it, a piece of cloth, probably for use in making a nest or some such thing.

The creature is certainly long gone now, but its nest remained in place.

A few years ago, during renovations in the building, someone came across the scrap of cloth, wedged in a spot in the attic.

"At first we thought, what in the world could this be?" said Todd Maxwell Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center. But, being into history and being aware that "you never know what some critter might squirrel away to be found a century later," the center held onto the scrap.

It wasn’t long before they realized what they had. The cloth, heavy canvas, was part of an awning.

It’s no mystery that the old city hall had awnings at the turn of the century, the 20th century. Photos show awnings made of some light-colored cloth.

But the discovery of the scrap of cloth prompted History Center officials to take a magnifying glass to century-old photos of the building, and they discovered something.

The original awnings weren’t made of a solid-colored cloth. They were striped, tan and blue, just like the scrap found in the attic. Apparently, when the awnings were getting a bit ragged, some animal took advantage and recycled part of one of them.

The center contacted an awning company that provided several patterns of awning material, and one, Pelfry said, was almost identical to the scrap found in the attic – dark blue and tan. Apparently, awning design hasn’t changed much in the last century.

It took some time, but this month the center replaced its old awnings, which were a solid red cloth, with new ones that are historically correct to the days when William McKinley was president – and the city jail was a dungeon.

"Perhaps we will provide residents with a better appreciation for those little critters," Pelfry said. You never know when they might actually stash away a piece of history.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, fax at 461-8893, or email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.