A Christmas miracle

@BR Ednote:EDITOR’S NOTE: This article appeared this week in the Scottsville, Ky., Citizen-Times, accompanied with a photo by Bradenton Herald photographer Grant Jefferies.


Citizen-Times News Editor

For many residents of Bradenton, November 2009 was a sad time.

After a prolonged battle to save a historic landmark produced no results, the Bradenton City Council approved a permit that would let its owners tear down a unique church building.

But in a very unusual — some say divine — occurrence, Bradenton’s historic loss revealed something of real historical significance to a place many residents of the Florida town had never heard of: Allen County, Ky.

In the rubble, a Christian-minded preservationist found a ledger from a long-gone store in Allen County’s Gainesville community. The ledger records purchases made over a period of several months in a bygone era: 1848 and 1849. He also found a book, with handwritten notes — thought to have come from the hand of a member of one of Allen County’s early prominent families — dating to the 1870s.

According to the city’s newspaper, the Bradenton Herald, the Bradenton Revival Temple was erected in 1933 and featured very distinctive architecture, with its arched windows and stone and coral outer walls. In 2001, two local attorneys had bought the building, hoping to renovate it into a new location for their law firm. But the estimated renovation cost was about $600,000 more than tearing it down and building a new structure, so the attorneys sought the demolition permit.

One area resident took a special interest in the developing story, and decided to visit the church site as the old building was being torn down. Walking amidst the rubble of what had been one wall of the church, Richard Hagedorn noticed something unusual. Dusting off what at first appeared to be a pile of tattered papers, he read some of the handwritten entries. Gainesville, 1848. And not Gainesville, Fla., where, coincidentally, his children live.

The entries reflected a time long gone, when storekeepers knew every customer’s name, when goods went for much different prices to people who earned much different annual incomes.

Excited, the history-loving Hagedorn kept searching, and unearthed another find. In another area, he found what turned out to be an old U.S. history textbook, from The Hickory Wild Academy. Internet searches of that name have turned up a historic school in Montgomery County, Tenn. The book’s back jacket included a poem handwritten by a Rorie O’Mulligan — a verse that harkened to a far simpler time.

“It was a whimsical poem about he and a young girl he was friends with; he talks about childhood memories ‘under the maple tree,’” Hagedorn said. The entry was dated Sept. 25, 1872. In its printed text, the book discussed then-recent news events, including the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

As thrilled as Hagedorn was with his discoveries, he also felt deep down that the artifacts didn’t belong in Florida any more — that they should go back to Allen County.

“It was just a ton of history,” Hagedorn said. “I wanted to return it to the county; it’s a treasure.”

Hagedorn, a Colorado native, said he had no previous connection to Allen County; until he found the books, he didn’t know it existed. He contacted the Allen County Historical Society’s president, Jolene Cooper, who listened as Hagedorn read some of the ledger’s entries. One man named George Tabor had bought six pounds of sugar.

Cooper was stunned; Tabor was her great-grandfather.

In a time long before Allen County was “dry,” another man had bought three quarters of a gallon of whiskey for 33 cents.

Cooper eagerly accepted Hagedorn’s offer to ship the books to the Historical Society.

“I think it’s an American story,” Hagedorn said. “People a long way apart from each other can share joy — especially around Christmas.”

As he set about finding something to pack the fragile artifacts in, Hagedorn looked for some newspaper, borrowing some from a neighbor. At this point, something else happened that raised his eyebrows and made him think again of God. Atop the stack of papers was the very Nov. 19 Bradenton Herald issue that detailed the Revival Temple’s impending destruction. Now he could send Cooper the story behind his discovery.

The package arrived at the Scottsville Post Office on Monday, and Cooper began examining the books. The entries are a window into 19th-century life in Gainesville, a community off Smiths Grove Road about six miles north of Scottsville. A woman had bought five yards of linen, at 9 cents per yard. Another man had bought a pair of boots for $2.75.

Cooper saw another man’s grocery list that interested her: A man named Tom Goodnight had bought goods. He was her other great-grandfather.

The names entered in the ledger’s eloquent cursive read like a “Who’s Who” list of early Allen County families. Pulliam. Sears. Oliver. Jameson. Stovall. Shields.

And Mulligan. How the ledger traveled from Allen County — and the book from Clarksville — to a city just south of Tampa Bay in Manatee County remains an utter mystery, but Rorie O’Mulligan’s entries in the old textbook may be a clue. The O’Mulligans had come to Allen County from Ireland, and were a prominent family of merchants. Some of them are buried in Scottsville’s City Cemetery off West Maple Street.

After receiving the books, Cooper went there, searching the gravestones. That didn’t immediately produce answers. The Historical Society’s Graveline Tour had one year offered the portrayal of a Rorie O’Mulligan, but that man hadn’t been born until 1860 — 12 years after the ledger entries.

She also found a J.R. Mulligan, who lived from 1829 to 1917, and a Fannie B., who lived from 1864 to 1953. It’s possible young Rorie may have spent some of his school years at Hickory Wild, but how the books came to be found in a church that wasn’t built until 1933, hundreds of miles away, is a question that may stand for some time.

Cooper plans to get the ledger and book copied, so visitors to the Museum on North Fourth Street can view the contents without risk to the originals. And that’s exactly what Hagedorn had hoped for.

“I feel like a part of Allen County’s history was, literally, pulled out of the rubble,” he said. “It shows the Lord cares about our history.”

Cooper agrees.

“How blessed we are,” she said. “How blessed we are. What a great Christmas gift to the museum.”