When Jordan Clough and his family moved to Round Hill in February 2018, they knew their Bell Road home was historic, but they couldn’t have anticipated the treasure trove of local historical documents and other items he would find hidden in a wooden trunk in the barn.
Last August, Clough began spending his free time during the pandemic cleaning out the barn, which was built in the 1940s and located behind their home.
It was filled from floor-to-ceiling with what Clough described as junk, some of it interesting and useful, and some not, he said. Truckload by truckload, the barn was cleaned out — eventually leading to the discovery of a plain-looking wooden trunk.
Thinking it was another item to take to the dump, he opened it and was surprised to find it was packed with items from a fraternal society — The Junior Order of United American Mechanics — with documents dating back to between 1904 and 1919.
It contained what appeared to be a trove of the society’s costumes and records — from their meeting minutes to funeral, health and insurance benefits and letters outlining the fraternity, he said.
“After I found all of these items I called Thomas Balch Library who provided helpful information and background,” Clough said.
Since then, Clough has done some research and found out that fraternal orders were common at the turn of the century. At its height in 1923, there were about 250,000 members in the organization across the United States.
Members paid into the society for what would now be considered life insurance. Upon their death, the family would receive financial benefits.
What is even more interesting, he said, are the references to the 1918 Spanish Flu global pandemic, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates claimed the lives of at least 675,000 people in the U.S. alone.
Looking through the records, receipts found in the trunk indicate a larger-than-normal number of funeral benefits were dispensed in 1918, which corresponded to the time of the outbreak in the U.S.
Clough came across a letter dated 1918 from the fraternity’s national office which outlines how the losses during the pandemic wiped out their funeral fund.
“The tremendous loss of our members in the Funeral Benefit Department due to the war and the influenza epidemic has almost depleted the nearly three quarter of a million dollars which that department had accumulated in its reserve. This was a matter of gravest concern to our whole organization, and furnished food for most serious thought,” the letter states.
Included in the documents are the receipts for all of the benefits paid out during that time frame.
“It would be very interesting to take the time to catalog all of the receipts. I’m sure you would see a correlation with the pandemic and draw some conclusions,” Clough said.
He also found doctors’ notes referencing the ailments under their care — which could provide some trends as to who was ailing from what and when, he said.
Also part of the discovery was a wealth of genealogical information about prominent families living in western Loudoun at the turn of the century.
The materials appear to have belonged to C.J. Bemusdaffer, who died in 1920, according to records found in the trunk.
The meeting minutes from a late-night induction ceremony for new members on March 24, 1904, provides a glimpse at how the organization operated. Members from Waterford, Hamilton, Purcellville and Round Hill councils met at Conard & Thompson’s Hall for the ceremony.
“At ten-twenty-seven,” the document reads, “Mr. John Lynch was conducted to the Council room to learn the mysteries of the Order.”
“With a smiling face and quick step, he paced around the room until he was commanded to halt, just at this point we think the smile left and we are quite sure the pace ceased. At eleven, the Miller was brought forth and you all know the rest. Mr. Jones was seen to cross the hall at an unsteady step as the hands of the clock pointed out the hour as eleven-twenty-five. The Sr. Mr. Moatz begun to solve the mysteries at eleven-thirty-five. Next came Mr. J.W. Calahan, the giant of the occasion. Last but not least came Mr. S.B. Davis. Some of our younger members we think were right much frightened. As a rule the order of services was well managed,” the ceremony minutes reads.
Laura Christiansen, curator of manuscripts for Thomas Balch Library, told the Times-Mirror that fraternal organizations were very common for this time period. However, she said that the documents found in the trunk were unique in terms of what was found, the amount of items inside, and how well preserved they were.
What has stumped Clough is how the trunk arrived at the old dairy barn. If Bemusdaffer died in January 1920, where did the trunk go for 20 years and how and who stored it at the barn?
The earliest dated paper in the trunk is 1904, and everything stops in December 1919.
Interestingly, some of the documents discovered in the trunk from a century ago echo issues that dominate political debate today. It appears as though the group advocated for restrictive immigration policies.
On January 9, 1906, a letter from former U.S. Senator Thomas S. Martin (D-VA), who served from 1847 to 1919, acknowledges receipt of a resolution adopted by the fraternal order regarding more restrictive immigration laws.
“I find this language breathtaking with the references to southern Europeans and Catholics,” said Clough, who is the fifth generation of his family to live in western Loudoun County.
Local historian and author Eugene Scheel, who has written a book about the 100th Anniversary of St. Francis de Sales Church in Purcellville, agreed, adding, “It shows how anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant people were at the time, especially in western Loudoun.”
Clough says he has enjoyed learning more about the history of the area. For now, he is unsure of what he will do with the items, whether they will be kept together as a collection or if he will donate pieces to local museums and Thomas Balch Library.
“This is part of our shared history here in Loudoun,” he said.