Restoring a piece of history

Brooklyn Historical Society preserves 150-year-old drawing of Dakota War battle

In the archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society, a tattered piece of Minnesota’s past lay buried and obscured — until recently.

During the past month, events across the state have commemorated the 150-year anniversary of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which occurred while the Civil War raged in the south. Monday, Sept. 3, marks the anniversary of the Battle of Acton, a little-known conflict of the Dakota War.

Just in time for that anniversary, the historical society has completed a project to restore a detailed pencil drawing that reveals more about the battle than historians previously knew.

Elizabeth Buschor of the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis uses a microscope and scalpel to restore a 150-year-old drawing discovered in the archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society. The drawing depicts the Battle of Acton, a little-known conflict of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. (Photo courtesy of the Midwest Art Conservation Center)
Elizabeth Buschor of the Midwest Art Conservation Center in Minneapolis uses a microscope and scalpel to restore a 150-year-old drawing discovered in the archives of the Brooklyn Historical Society. The drawing depicts the Battle of Acton, a little-known conflict of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. (Photo courtesy of the Midwest Art Conservation Center)

Volunteers were sorting through the archives at the historical society when they found the timeworn drawing. No one knew where it came from, but they realized it had historical significance.

“We have no idea where it came from and have no idea how long we’ve had it,” said Darryl Sannes of Brooklyn Center, a member of the Brooklyn Historical Society and the Minnesota Civil War Commemoration Task Force.

The document turned up in early 2006, Sannes said, but the society was working on “The Patriots of Brooklyn,” a trilogy of books about Civil War soldiers from Brooklyn Township, an area that now includes all or parts of Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Osseo. The drawing was put on the backburner. But it couldn’t stay there.

“I knew it had a lot of historical significance, and I thought, ‘It just can’t get thrown in the corner,’” Sannes said. “It needs to be restored and repaired.”

The document was especially important, Sannes said, because historians knew very little about the Battle of Acton, except that it left three soldiers from the 9th Minnesota regiment lying dead on the battlefield for a week. Two of the soldiers were from Brooklyn Township and one was from Excelsior. One of the soldiers, Alvah Getchell, now rests in the Brooklyn Crystal Cemetery in Brooklyn Park.

The battle rarely gets more than a mention in accounts of the Dakota War, and the Minnesota Historical Society’s display about the war says nothing about it, Sannes said.

“I think one of the reasons why people don’t talk about it … is that they don’t know what to say about it,” he said. “… There really is only a couple of first-hand accounts of what happened there.”

Sannes said the drawing, completed in the days immediately following the battle, probably told more visually than had been written in any of the known stories. It also had a short written account of the battle, and labeled where each soldier fell. In addition to the battle, the drawing depicted the Hutchinson Stockade, where the regiment spent the winter.

“I kind of felt it was my duty to go out there and tell that story,” Sannes said.

So the Brooklyn Historical Society applied for a “legacy grant” from the state to restore and preserve the document. It received the grant early this year. Sannes spearheaded the project.

After researching who could perform the restoration, he selected the Midwest Art Conservation Center, a nonprofit that operates in leased space at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It’s one of only a handful of labs in the United States that performs complex restorations of fragile artwork and artifacts.

The process is complicated and time-consuming.

“It’s really where art and science meet,” said Colin Turner, the nonprofit’s executive director. He said conservators must earn a master’s degree in art conservation. To get into that program, they must first do very well in a broad range of subjects, including organic chemistry and art history.

Elizabeth Buschor, the organization’s senior paper conservator, tackled the project for the historical society.

When she received the drawing, it needed a lot of work. The pencil image itself was in decent condition, she said, but the mid-1800s paper had deteriorated.

The drawing was in two pieces, and the paper had darkened significantly and had water spots. “Fly specks” — the art conservation term for insect dung — dotted the paper with acidic brown spots. Through the years, tears in the drawing had been mended with newspaper clippings, and there was tape and rubber cement on it, too.

First Buschor thoroughly inspected the drawing, photographed it using special techniques and came up with a restoration plan.

Then she gently “dry cleaned” as much as she could using erasers, a scalpel and a microscope. Most of the fly specks, much of the dirt and many smudges came off through this process.

Next she removed the mends and as much of the glue as she could using enzymes.

Some adhesive still remained, so Buschor saturated the drawing with water to remove the rest.

“It’s very counterintuitive,” she said. “… It is really amazing, but because of the chemistry involved … water is a very effective means to clean paper,” as long as it’s safe for the image itself.

Buschor used a polyester web to support the paper while slowly saturating it with water. After many hours, the adhesive and the discoloration came away.

Once everything that could be safely removed had come off, Buschor began mending the paper. She filled holes with a lightweight but strong Japanese paper that had been dyed to match the original. She also pasted the two halves of the drawings together. The paste Buschor used was an Asian-style product that has been used for thousands of years and remains both strong and reversible for a long time.

“We try to make our work reversible,” she said. “It’s very important.”

Making the work reversible assures any future work as safe and easy as possible.

After she mended the drawing, her work still wasn’t complete. She took colored pencils and lightly drew lines and colors on the spots she filled in, to make them look as much like the rest of the paper as possible.

“We want the fills to fall back, not be really visible,” she said. “We want people to see the drawing.”

When the work was completed last week, the change was dramatic.

“The things that they do is pretty amazing,” Sannes said.

The historical society’s grant also paid for the drawing to be framed and for a custom-made box to protect it. The grant also covered the cost of making a replica for use when Sannes travels to speak.

Buschor said it was satisfying to know the drawing had been restored as thoroughly as possible and would be well-protected.

“I think this was actually kind of a treasure, this drawing,” she said. “It documents a piece of history and … it’s kind of remarkable that it survived at all. It’s wonderful that it did survive. It’s a fascinating piece of history.”

For Sannes, it’s not enough that the drawing has been preserved. He wants to share the story. He has given several presentations about the Battle of Acton, but his first presentation with the restored drawing will be 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 1 at Brookdale Library, 6125 Shingle Creek Parkway, Brooklyn Center. He will also present Sept. 4 in St. Cloud and Dec. 3 at the Rogers Library.

“We can’t just let this go by the wayside,” Sannes said.

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