It wasn’t quite an “Antiques Roadshow” find, but the sepia-toned photo Jon Werner and Jeanette Nolan presented to the library’s Archival Center Friday afternoon carried with it the weight of the Civil War and an ill-fated Arctic voyage from more than a century ago.
Werner and Nolan work for the Leeward Charitable Foundation, which operates the Leeward Light Thrift Store on Bridge Road in Salisbury and a store in York, Maine. A staff member who was sorting through donated items recently pulled out the signed photo of a distinguished, bearded military man and set it aside, knowing it deserved further study.
With a bit of research, Nolan, the communications director for the nonprofit charity, said they knew this was a portrait of A. W. Greely, a Newburyport native who went on to a career in the Army, service during the Civil War and as head of a multi-year scientific expedition into the Arctic in 1881. Only six of the original 25 members of that expedition survived.
The worker who first pulled the photo from the donated items “found out very quickly who he was,” said Werner, the distribution manager for the foundation.
The foundation takes donations, sorts and resells most items at the two stores. The organization then donates part of the proceeds to 20 food pantries, shelters and social service agencies throughout the area, New Hampshire and southern Maine, including the Pettengill House, Our Neighbors’ Table, Jeanne Geiger Crisis Center and others.
Werner said it’s not unusual for Leeward Light to receive donations that include old photos, “but that one spoke for itself. We said ‘wow’, that looks like it could be somebody.”
And it was. Greely (1844-1935), enlisted in the 19th Mass. Infantry in 1861 at age 17, spending the next two years working his way up the enlisted ranks to sergeant. By April 1865, he had made captain, receiving an honorary promotion after the war to major “for faithful and meritorious service during the war.”
In 1881 he lead the expedition to the Arctic, a voyage that ended in disaster, with many members starving or dying from disease before a ship sent out to find them arrived in 1884. When Greely returned to Newburyport, the city held a huge parade to honor him on Aug. 14, 1884, declaring it “Greely Day.” Harper’s Weekly published a multi-page spread and the Daily Herald of Newburyport devoted the front page and an inside page to the event, according to Sharon Spieldenner, director of the Archival Center.
Spieldenner had a display of books, photos and newspaper pages featuring Greely displayed on a library table when Werner and Nolan arrived to donate the photo on Friday.
“We are very happy to donate it to the Archival Center,” Nolan said.
“We get some great things donated” to the thrift shops, Werner said. “This is just an amazing example of the great stuff we get from the community.”
And, Nolan added, “We figured we’d give it back to the community. We felt it belonged here,” at the Newburyport library.
Spieldenner, for her part, was grateful for the donation, which fits in well with the many historic items about Greely. Included in the library’s collection is a massive two-volume collection Greely wrote about his Arctic expedition, and the book “The Greely Arctic Expedition as Fully Narrated by Lieut. Greely and Other Survivors.”
The title page calls it the “full account of the terrible sufferings on the ice and awful tales of cannibalism!”
Although the newly discovered Greely portrait isn’t dated, it’s clearly from later in his life and is signed “Cordially Yours, A.W. Greely, Major General, US Army.”
Werner said this was one of the more unusual finds at the thrift shops’ sorting center. He noted that the foundation donates 30 cents of every dollar it makes to in more than a dozen communities. The organization is approaching the $2 million mark of funds distributed to charities “from what other people have donated to us.”
“Thirty percent of every dollar we make goes back to the food pantries, shelters and soup kitchens,” he said. “It’s a great symbiotic relationship. ... Everybody benefits.”
As he, Nolan and Spieldenner talked about Greely’s interesting history and strong Newburyport connections — he once lived at 78 High St. — Werner mused over the luck of finding and identifying the old photo.
“This was somebody who, back then, was a huge deal,” he said.
Richard K. Lodge can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @RichardLodge_DN.
For more on Leeward Charitable Foundation, see leewardfoundation.org.
For more on the Newburyport Public Library’s Archival Center, see newburyportpl.org.