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Mill superintendent's diaries reveal everyday life in 19th-century Laurel

Volunteers with the Laurel Historical Society are piecing together Laurel's history as a mill town, thanks to a handful of 19th-century diaries.

Ken Skrivseth came across the diaries of George H. Nye, superintendent of the Laurel Mill from 1877 to 1885, more than 10 years ago after a chance discovery on an 1878 Laurel map ultimately led him to Nicholas Picerno, a collector of Civil War artifacts.

The Laurel Historical Society purchased six of Nye's diaries in 1998 for $500 each.

"They've been an invaluable resource on what was happening in the town," Skrivseth said during a program on the Nye diaries held by the Laurel Historical Society Feb. 9.

Nye took meticulous notes on the town's daily life, from the wages of mill workers to the weather.

With few remaining newspapers from before 1897, Nye's accounts have given Laurel Historical Society volunteers the ability to compile a fuller history of the town.

"It's nice to put a lot of things in context," said Jeri Witt, a Laurel Historical Society volunteer who helped transcribe the diaries.

Nye was born in Hallowell, Maine in 1828, and served in the Civil War, including at the Battle of Antietam. After a dispute with the management at Montreal Cotton Co., he moved to Laurel with his family in 1877.

Nye lived in an L-shaped stone house on the site of Pallotti High School until 1885, when the mill failed.

The Laurel Historical Society has one diary each from the years 1877 through 1880 and 1882 and 1885, and in them, Nye details Laurel's evolution from a factory to a town.

"You wouldn't think of this as a community that was once a factory town," said Skrivseth's wife, Karen Lubieniecki, who is helping with the diary project.

Located on the fall line and along the Patuxent River, Laurel has the ideal geography for a mill, and the town grew around the mill, boosted by the arrival of the railroad in Laurel in 1835, Lubieniecki said.

Skrivseth, a trained engineer, said he was turned off by history classes but liked history, an interest renewed when he started the diary project.

"A little bit of the engineer in me (likes) unwinding and understanding what his writing style means," Skrivseth said.

He described the process of transcribing the diaries as "very painstaking…. It takes a lot of concentration."

Witt said Nye's handwriting and knack for misspellings made for slow progress at first, "but then you get on a roll, and it's as easy as reading a newspaper."

She said the hardest part of transcribing has been reading Nye's 1885 diaries after his wife's death in 1883.

"He definitely cared about his family," she said of Nye, who was known to give his daughters $5 after a visit — the equivalent of more than $100 today, according to inflation calculators.

The number of names she recognized in the diaries surprises her, Witt said.

Many who attended Skrivseth's lecture also recognized the names Nye discussed in his diaries, and several have relatives who have married Nye's descendants.

The next leg of the project involves transcribing the remaining diaries, Skrivseth said. He aims to eventually publish and post the diaries online.

Skrivseth said the diaries have given him new insight into the town where he lives.

"Everywhere you go in Laurel, you can see something, and all of a sudden it means something different," he said.

The Laurel Historical Society will hold additional events this spring to complement the current exhibit at the Laurel Museum, "True Life: I'm a Laurel Mill Worker." A program on black communities during Reconstruction will be held March 8, and a program on the history of mills in Maryland is scheduled for April 12. For more information on the Nye diaries and Laurel Historical Society events, go to http://www.laurelhistory.org.

This story has been updated.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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