A box containing a parchment scroll with the names of 1,220 World War I veterans from Florida, which was buried in Riverside’s Memorial Park in 1924, has been unearthed and unveiled.
The box was unearthed on Thursday in order to reveal the scroll and the names inscribed on it and to compare those to the 1,587 names of WWI Veterans from Florida that are known due to the work of Dr. R.B. Rosenburg from Clayton State University in Georgia.
However, when the initial copper box was opened, the smaller lead box inside showed signs of water damage, so it won’t be opened until a later date.
Memorial Park, at 1620 Riverside Ave. in Jacksonville, is a 1924 World War I Memorial conceived by Rotarian George Hardee on Nov. 12, 1918, the day after Armistice - the end of “The Great War.” A Citizens Committee was formed that day, which included Ninah Cummer (whose home is now the Cummer Museum), to raise funds and buy land in Riverside.
That committee hired the Olmstead Brothers firm to handle landscape design. The committee also hired St. Augustine sculptor C. Adrean Pillars for the landmark sculpture, called “Spiritualized Life.” The park officially opened on Dec. 25, 1924.
That same day a parchment scroll, which had the names of 1,220 Florida WWI veterans inscribed on it in India ink, was placed inside a lead box and soldered shut. That lead box was then placed in a copper box, which was also soldered shut. Those boxes were then buried underneath the plaza and covered with a bronze plaque.
On Thursday morning, Jacksonville officials and representatives from the Memorial Park Association watched as Precast and Restoration Services carefully unscrewed that bronze plaque. Professionals then dug brick by brick until they found the bronze box containing the scroll. The box was covered in soft cotton and carefully transported to the Museum of Science and History (MOSH), at 1025 Art Museum Drive.
There, crews from Jacksonville Fire and Rescue carefully opened the bronze box by gently cutting away the nearly century-old soldering points. But, when the lead box inside was revealed, Ann Seibert, a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in St. Augustine, saw signs of moisture and water damage.
The Pillars statue that housed the scroll was covered in three feet of water during Hurricane Irma.
“I was concerned because we’re talking about a parchment scroll, it doesn’t really matter its age, that’s been underwater,” said Seibert, who specializes in art on paper, books and unbound documents. “Even in two boxes, if any water has leaked in, particularly if it’s reached a lot of the parchment, will have impacted the parchment.”
Parchment is animal skin that has been cured with lime. If the lime gets wet, the parchment reverts to animal skin. “So then you have very rapid deterioration,” said Seibert.
“If we’re trying to get it dry we want to do it in a very stable, slow manner,” said Seibert. “Over, I’m talking periods of days if not months, to get it dry. So we don’t want it in 24 hours to suddenly hit air and start to dry out. Because it will become almost like a potato chip.”
Seibert says the box will now be taken to the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum’s L.A.M.P. Archaeological lab. There, under the supervision of Starr Cox, the Director of Archaeological Conservation, the lead box will slowly be opened. Then, if the scroll has been exposed to moisture, the slow drying process will begin. The scroll will not be unrolled until Cox says it’s safe to do so.
Seibert said the worst case scenario here is the box is filled with water. And according to her, parchment is the most difficult form of paper to repair once it’s been exposed to water.
If the scroll can be salvaged and it is safely unrolled, it will be photographed and the names will be compared to Rosenburg’s list. Once research is done and the scroll is deemed safe from deterioration, all the names will be interred together. At least that’s the plan at this point, according to Michele Luthin, Vice President of the Board of Directors and Chair of Communications and Marketing at Memorial Park Association, Inc. But that plan depends on the condition of the parchment.
“The park was dedicated to the 1,220 Floridians who died in World War I,” Luthin said. “Now we know that there were many more Floridians who were not included on the original list. So there is something about rededicating the park to those veterans, a hundred years from the end of World War I, that just seems appropriate.”
Once all the names are cross checked and confirmed, the conclusive record of all of the fallen soldiers will be interred into the ground together. Those names will be listed on MemParkJax.org in the near future, where people can look up veterans’ names by Florida county.