BOALSBURG — By spring of this year, the Boal Mansion and Museum will have an exciting new feature to share with scholars, historians and anyone else interested in artifacts of antiquity.
More than 100,000 pages of ancient documents will appear in digital form, thanks to the efforts of two pairs of dedicated technicians and a crew of volunteers.
This project takes a prominent position in Centre County history because the documents include personal letters, manuscripts, journals, shipping manifests, receipts and other hand-written memorabilia originating directly from the family of Christopher Columbus.
The Boal family, whose history in the area begins in the mid 18th century, has a connection to the Columbus family.
“In 1893, Colonel Theodore Boal married a French woman, Mathilde de Lagarde,” explained volunteer docent Terri Angeletti, “and she had an aunt, Victoria, who married Diego Colon, a direct descendant of Christopher.”
So the Boal family amassed countless items once owned by various relatives of Columbus. But this collection of hand-written documents will likely reveal details previously unknown. On Feb. 14, the painstaking process of creating electronic versions of these pages began.
“Two teams, have been working 12 hours each, around the clock,” said Cynthia Shaler, president of the Board of the Columbus Chapel & Boal Mansion Museum.
David Jaksa and Stephany Pelkey of Saginaw, Mich. work for US-Imaging. They travel throughout the nation, scanning documents for courthouses, estates and museums. They've taken the first shift in this project.
“This is the largest single family collection of documents we've worked on,” said Pelkey.
The pair has spent their days standing at the large scanners, methodically lowering the clear cover, scanning the pages and checking them on a screen. When they finish with the hundreds of thousands of pages, they'll need to review each image, matching it up with the actual document.
“We get through about 1,300 pages each day,” Jaksa said. “That's 2,600 images because the pages have writing on both sides.”
At this point, no one really knows what each page contains.
“We don't read ancient Spanish,” Shaler said.
The mansion and museum hope to find a translator who reads, not only Spanish, but also the distinct linguistic form in use hundreds of years ago. Like English, Spanish has changed throughout time.
A few words and images, however, need little translation.
“I've seen Marco Polo's signature in here,” Pelkey said, “and old stamps and receipts. A lot of crosses, too.”
Jaksa estimated three to five weeks for completion of the project. That will include creating searchable programs and getting all items converted to a useable form.
Up until now, the manuscripts have sat, stacked in bundles bound with cords and, since November 2018, stored in a climate-controlled vault. Before that, they stayed in the confessional booths in the Columbus Chapel on the museum grounds.
“We think that since Colonel Boal built that chapel in 1912, he just didn't know what else to do with them,” according to Shaler.
“The Boals were packrats,” Angeletti added.
One of the documents contains a date of 1398, far older than anyone expected.
But technology, science and dedication have provided the chance to reach back through the centuries and, with proper translation, take a closer look at some of history's most fascinating episodes.