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Islander finds hidden history in family garage
Rudi Pettersen was just looking for space to park a scooter in his family’s garage. What he found instead was a forgotten remnant of history.
In a heap of items recently dropped off by his grandmother, tucked behind a finger painting created by his great-grandfather, Pettersen discovered two tattered and water-stained documents, each bearing the signature of a U.S. president – the pen work of William McKinley on one, and Theodore Roosevelt on the other.
Pettersen said his grandmother recalled having tucked the documents behind the painting decades ago to keep them safe.
“She’d just forgotten about them,” said Pettersen, 23. “They’d been in her basement for 40 or 50 years.”
Each document was assigning Russell B. Harrison, son of 23rd U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, to a different government post.
One, signed by McKinley and Secretary of War Elihu Root on Jan. 19, 1900, made Harrison “inspector general of volunteers with the rank of lieutenant general.” He served as inspector general in Puerto Rico from April to November that year, according to a note on the page.
The second document, signed by Roosevelt and Secretary of State Alvey Ader, assigned Harrison as Consul to Mexico, a position he held from 1908 to 1927.
It’s not exactly clear how the documents came to Pettersen’s family, but his grandmother suspects that his great-grandfather, a Bellingham real-estate broker and avid collector, likely picked them up, perhaps as part of a land deal.
After uncovering the documents Pettersen did some preliminary investigation, sending off scanned images of the signatures to the Washington State Historical Society.
The response was favorable. Ed Nolan, head of Special Collections, said he was confident the signatures were authentic.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that these are genuine,” Nolan said.
But the condition of the documents was troubling. Moisture had ravaged the paper and made the signatures somewhat blurry.
“The worst part is that they were very wet,” Nolan said. “When paper like that gets wet and stays wet, it becomes very brittle.”
In there current condition the documents would have little or no value for most collectors, according to Nolan, and restoration would be extremely expensive.
Pettersen’s grandmother has gifted the documents to him and he hopes a collector will take interest. He’d like to see them displayed somewhere where history enthusiasts can enjoy them.
In the meantime, he has been admiring his historic finds, especially the one bearing Roosevelt’s name.
“I just think it’s crazy that Theodore Roosevelt held this same piece of paper and actually signed it,” Pettersen said.