Jeff Rankin  |  Published November 06, 2019

Finding History in the Ashes

Fire that gutted Monmouth Municipal Airport created unexpected lesson plan for history students in Lynn Daw’s ‘Introduction to Archives Management’ class.

Monmouth College technical services librarian Lynn Daw discusses treatments for fire-damaged docu... Monmouth College technical services librarian Lynn Daw discusses treatments for fire-damaged documents with students in her archives management class. From left are: Teagan McKenna, Maurice Greene, Daw, Shayne Sendera, Eli Goichenberg and Mitch Perez.

MONMOUTH, Ill. – In the eight years since Lynn Daw began teaching “Introduction to Archives Management” at Monmouth College she has enjoyed sharing her passion for preserving historical documents and artifacts with students. But recently the lesson plan for her history class became unexpectedly personal.

Nine weeks into the fall semester, the archivist and technical services librarian was preparing to present a lesson on disaster planning when disaster struck uncomfortably close to home. In the predawn hours of Oct. 25, fire broke out at the Monmouth Municipal Airport, gutting its hangar and office and causing $1.1 million in damages. Among the eight planes destroyed was a vintage 1946 Cessna 140 aircraft owned by Daw and her pilot husband, Brian.

“We were on the scene shortly after the fire was reported, and watched as plane after plane exploded,” Daw said.

As Daw absorbed the initial shock of the fire, she also began to think about the potential loss of history at what was the oldest continuously operated airport in Illinois. She and her husband are members of the Monmouth Flying Club, an organization that goes back decades, offering private flying lessons and sponsoring an extremely popular annual Fourth of July fly-in breakfast. The club’s plane was among the those lost in the fire.

“There were also photograph albums, newsletters, award plaques and meeting minutes,” said Daw, who had previously worked on organizing the historical documents.

On a pleasant Sunday afternoon two days after the fire, the Daws went to the airport to meet with an insurance adjuster. With the fire marshal having concluded his investigation and the embers finally cool, they decided to reach through a burned out office window and try to salvage some club documents. What they found wasn’t encouraging.

“Of the approximately seven albums of photographs and documents, we managed to pull out three or four,” Daw said. “The plastic sleeves holding photographs and documents had melted and fused together.”

Salvaging treasures

But there was one potential bright point. A log book belonging to airport operator Mel Lynch was recovered. A legendary pilot, mechanic and flight instructor who had been the lifeblood of the flying club, Lynch was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 2018. The book contains many years of historical data regarding flights, passengers, destinations and weather conditions. Although water-logged and singed around the edges, the pages were intact.

As a devoted curator, Daw knew immediately that stabilizing and preserving the flying club documents would become her personal mission, but she also realized the potential educational value of the project for her archiving students.

“Typically, I assign them to research historical disaster recovery case studies,” she said.

Now she had not only a personal disaster story to tell, but also the opportunity to discuss how to approach a disaster recovery project and provide hands-on demonstrations of the recovery methods themselves.

Daw told her students that the first priority in recovering wet documents is to get them into a freezer.

“This buys us time,” she said, “preventing any mold issues and providing an opportunity to create a recovery plan.”

Although the notebooks with their melted plastic pages were essentially beyond recovery (Daw said they would be preserved in their found state as historical mementos), Lynch’s flight log was somewhat salvageable. One by one, she pulled off each delicate page, brushed off the charred edges, vacuumed the soot and placed it under weights between sheets of spun polyester.

“One of the most challenging aspects is keeping all the pages in order,” said Daw. “You also have to constantly clean up the area and drying the pages requires a lot of horizontal space.”

Eventually, Daw hopes to digitize the stabilized pages before returning the originals to Lynch, which she said will be a priceless keepsake for the veteran pilot. In the meantime, she will experiment with the best ways to preserve it for the long term. The most important lesson to remember, she told her students, is don’t do anything you can’t undo later.

Hands-on history

Students in the history class said seeing firsthand the steps required to respond to a disaster has been a valuable experience. Two of the students, who are computer science majors with forensic science minors, were particularly interested.

“I didn’t expect to come into personal contact with an actual disaster yet,” said Mitch Perez ’22 from Wheaton, Ill. “It helped me understand the importance and complexities of preserving evidence.”

Shayne Sendera ’21 from Orlando Park, Ill., observed that the burned photos reminded him how photos from different eras have different chemical compositions.

Similarly, Teagan McKenna ’21, a chemistry major from Sterling, Ill., said her experience in physical chemistry made her think about the effects of heat on the formation of chemical bonds.

Eli Goichenberg ’21, a history major from Walnut, Calif., said that even though many of the burned documents can no longer be read, they are still historically significant.

“Now they are more than just documents,” he said. “They have now become artifacts of the fire itself.”

A fellow history major, Maurice Greene of Galesburg, Ill., is contemplating a career as a museum curator. “Just being able to experience this as a freshman has been quite inspiring,” he said.

Daw said her experience with fire-damaged documents had been limited to books from Monmouth College’s 1907 fire that destroyed the main college building, some of which are still in the library’s collection.

“This (referring to the airport documents) is the most damaged stuff I’ve ever worked with,” she said.

“Disasters happen all the time,” said Daw, who noted she was following with interest response to the recent California wildfires threatening the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and the Getty Museum. “You can prepare and try to prevent all you want, but disasters are still going to happen.”

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