By Josette Keelor
MIDDLETOWN -- Through the years, visitors to Belle Grove Plantation's 1797 manor house have made their mark -- though few as literally as those who signed their names on the attic walls.
Starting this weekend, guests can get a closer look at signatures with flashlights and magnifying glasses, said Belle Grove Executive Director Kristen Laise.
"It's sort of like DIY history," Laise said.
Saturday when the historic Middletown plantation opens for the season, an exhibit of professional snapshots will display graffiti scrawled since the Civil War.
Laise said the idea came from recent community interest in seeing the signatures but that safety has been a concern.
There's no emergency exit, she said, plaster on the ceiling needs to be checked by an engineer, and the climb up the tightly wound staircase is too treacherous.
Their answer: "Bring the attic downstairs."
Photographer Rick Foster captured what's written on the attic walls, and Belle Grove staff and volunteers transcribed names to use in books for the exhibit. In them, guests will have the chance to look up graffiti of friends and family, searching by first name, last name, date or hometown.
And a video of the attic by An Affair to Remember Video in Winchester will show a three-dimensional view of what it's like to be up there, Laise said.
One signature, buried in an attic room under sinking ceiling plaster, is dated June 1862 and names Louisiana soldier Leonce Sandoz captured in Middletown on June 19, 1862. But the date raises questions about why he was there at that time.
"We sort of wonder, was he held in the attic for a period of time?" Laise said.
"We wish he would [have] put a date, like what date in June, because it would have depended. It doesn't really mesh with the troop movements. Most, they were on retreat at that point, so either he was, like, way behind," she said. Or, "maybe he signed it after the war."
Sandoz was taken to Fort Delaware and exchanged later that summer. Then in the spring of 1864, he was captured again and held six months.
"This was the site of a lot of reunions," Laise said. "It's possible he signed his name after the fact."
Even in recent years, guests of family reunions have snuck up to the attic to sign their own names. There also are signatures of international visitors, from England, Ireland, Canada and Greenland.
Volunteer Gee Gee Pasquet never signed her name in the attic, but she has climbed those stairs. In the late 1940s, on visits to see her Great Uncle Herbert Brumback and his granddaughter Kathy, she would play in the attic.
"I was about eight, nine years old, and I came flying down the steps more ways than one. I really about killed myself and sat there kind of stunned, trying to get myself together," she said.
She admitted she's been to the attic since, but laughing she said, "Nobody knew it."
"The Writing is on the Wall: Photographs of Belle Grove's Attic Graffiti," will open at 10 a.m. Saturday and run through April 19. Admission is $5 for those 12 and older, and free to members of Belle Grove or the National Trust for Historic Preservation. For more information, call 540-869-2028 or visit www.bellegrove.org.
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org