Thursday, Feb. 28, 2008

Volunteer opens Civil War general’s diaries to public

Laurel resident brought diaries to museum, now transcribing them

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Susan whitney⁄The Gazette
Laurel Museum volunteer Ken Skrivseth holds the 1878 diary of George H. Nye. The inside cover has a description of Laurel Cotton Mill alongside Nye’s ornate signature. Skrivseth is transcribing six of Nye’s diaries.
Ken Skrivseth is in the middle of a formidable task. He is transcribing six fully completed, 19th century diaries onto his computer—and it isn’t even his day job.

The electronic engineer and spouse of Laurel Historical Society President Karen Lubieniecki, Skrivseth, a Laurel resident, is one of the people responsible for bringing the personal diaries of Civil War Gen. George H. Nye, a onetime superintendent of the Laurel Mills, to the Laurel Museum in 1998.

‘‘The intent [of the transcription is] to do some low-level marketing of it and have it as a sale item at the museum’s gift shop, probably in pamphlet form, late this year,” Skrivseth said.

He tackles the job in several-hours-long shifts and then has to stop for the rest of the day, since the task puts considerable strain on the eyes, he said.

On that day nearly a decade ago that began his quest for the diaries, Skrivseth had no idea he was mere months away from getting his hands on six pieces of genuine Laurel history. He and Brandon Gill, a then-high-school student, were both interested in the city’s history and were doing some Internet research at the Laurel Museum. ‘‘We had one of these slow Internet connections and we were looking at this 1870s map of Laurel [online],” Skrivseth said. ‘‘We could read the letters ‘‘G-E” on one house on the map, but I misread [the rest of] it, so when we ran a search on the name we found nothing.”

Gill, who has since moved out of the area, inspected the map more closely and saw that the name beginning with a ‘‘G” actually spelled out ‘‘Gen. George Nye.”

An online search on that name led Skrivseth and Gill to learn that Nye had been superintendent of the Laurel Mills from 1877 to 1885, an important job in local history, as Laurel began as a mill town in the early 19th century.

Over the next few weeks, Skrivseth and one of Nye’s descendants e-mailed each other about the late superintendent.

During their correspondence, Skrivseth learned of a Civil War collector who had some of Nye’s personal effects.

Nicholas Picerno, a contributor to several Civil War history books, agreed to sell all six of Nye’s thin, oblong, leather-bound diaries, which he had acquired in the 1980s for their significance to the Civil War, to Skrivseth for the Laurel Museum collections.

‘‘I felt that [the museum] would be the appropriate place for them given Ken and Karen’s love of history,” Picerno said.

Though Skrivseth wouldn’t reveal exactly how much he and other area donors paid to acquire the diaries for the museum, he did say each book cost several hundred dollars.

On Sept. 27, 1998, the well-received exhibit ‘‘George Nye and His Diaries” opened at the Laurel Museum for an 11-month run. The diaries are currently kept in acid-free containers in museum storage.

The general of three Civil War units who saw action at the Battle of Antietam, Nye and his diaries have lent much insight into what it was like to live in late-19th century Laurel.

‘‘All the problems with operating a mill were at the forefront of these diaries,” Skrivseth said. ‘‘Low water or high water meant shutting down the mill temporarily, [as did] raw-cotton price [increases].”

From the journals, Skrivseth also learned that the mill had backup steam power and that the first speeding ticket in Laurel was given in the 1870s, to a friend of Nye’s. In one of his daily entries, Nye described a long workday, which consisted of his getting on the train that ran through Laurel to Washington, D.C., meeting with people in the city, staying the night at a hotel and returning by train in the morning.

‘‘This is something we would do, and this was the 1880s,” Skrivseth said. ‘‘[People back then] commuted, too.”