Homeowners Find Surprising Discoveries During Renovations
By Karen Hendricks | Photography by Casey Martin
Whether they were built in the 1700s, 1800s, or 1900s, Adams County’s homes and buildings are historic treasure troves. But it’s during the renovation process when surprises are often revealed: antiques are found tucked away in an attic, time capsules are discovered behind a wall, or buried treasure is literally uncovered in a yard. We went digging and found Adams County stories worthy of historical significance—and others that just make for colorful tales.
The Historic Tate Farm was the site of the Battle of Hunterstown, a cavalry battle during the Gettysburg Campaign on July 2, 1863. As a result, the 1740s log home and its 10 outbuildings still bear battle scars—some of which are still being discovered and unearthed.
“The barn is one of the older ones in Adams County, built in the 1700s, and inside you can see where a cannonball hit during the battle,” says Roger Harding, who purchased the property with wife, Laurie, in 2002. A beam in the home’s living room displays another cannonball mark.
The property’s historic secrets continue to unfold.
“In 2004, we were in the process of restoring the summer kitchen, which had the old horsehair plaster on the walls. We were getting back to the original logs, and we found a young girl’s shoe buried in the wall,” says Roger. He describes it as a basic child’s black shoe, somewhat deteriorated.
“Back in the day, the Tates were Christians, so they would have put a young girl’s shoe into the wall to protect the family and give it good luck,” he says. Thanks to a historic tour he’d taken of Gettysburg’s historic Jacob Weikert property, where a girl’s shoe was also found in the wall, he knew the meaning behind the custom. It was tradition to hide a good-luck charm within the walls of a home, to protect the family. The most commonly used item was a girl’s shoe. The custom dates back hundreds of years in Europe.
Another “find” was apparently buried in the soil for more than 150 years. Roger was painting the barn about 15 years ago, when in amongst foundation stones, he found a “spike with a figure-eight loop on it.” At the former National Park Service Visitor Center’s Civil War cavalry display, he learned the item was a “picket pin” used to tether a horse. Apparently, a soldier left it behind in 1863.
If Walls Could Talk
Jeannette and Walter Smith purchased and completely restored a pre-Civil War stone home on Mummasburg Road in 1992. Jeannette recalls the process of tearing away multiple layers of wallpaper and wallboard to reveal the original, circa 1800, blue-gray milk paint and hand-planed wood paneling. Further discoveries on the walls include boot marks along the stairs.
The home, built by the Throme family, remained in the family for about 100 years, says Jeannette. She suspects some of the names and numbers carved into the home’s large basement fireplace mantle relate to the family.
The original walls also bear two, unique, built-in compartments. “The stone walls are 18 to 20 inches thick, and in one room, there are two windows each with a drawer and knob built in the wainscoting, and when you pull the drawer out you can see the interior of the stone wall,” Jeannette says. Research points to two reasons for the drawers: They either held candles, keeping them cool within the stones so the wax wouldn’t melt, until they were burned to light the windows, or the drawers could have been used to collect tolls as travelers passed by on Mummasburg Road.
Walking on Water
When Becky LaBarre and her husband moved to Adams County in the summer of 2017, they searched for an historic property to call home. LaBarre, Gettysburg Borough’s director of historic preservation and planning, says their brick pre-Civil War Fairfield home has revealed a number of surprising historic finds.
“The best find so far came [in October of 2018]when I was edging a new flowerbed and hit metal. Digging back about three inches of soil I discovered three precariously positioned, rusted metal plates, significantly curved from the weight of the soil. There were gaps between them, and as the soil shifted from my shovel I heard, ‘plunk,’ as the dirt clods fell into water below.”
LaBarre had uncovered a well, lined with neatly stacked stone. There was a 6-inch hole where presumably a hand pump had been placed once to provide water to the nearby outbuilding, a 1930s-era laundry “wash house.” LaBarre says the well is perfectly functioning to this day. In the spring, the couple plans to install a hand pump to draw water for their garden.
“We had traversed over this opening multiple times with the lawn mower, never knowing that all that had separated us from falling into the pit was a bit of grass and rusty metal,” LaBarre reflects.
Josh Austin says his childhood was intertwined with the family business founded by his father, Mark Austin Building & Remodeling of Littlestown. He grew up playing on construction sites—and hearing plenty of construction-related stories like this one told by his grandfather: Josh’s uncle once found a cache of Civil War-era guns stashed inside the wall of a Gettysburg home being remodeled.
While Josh says he’s personally “never been that lucky to find anything with any serious [value], we occasionally come across handwriting with names and dates going back to the 1800s, or an old newspaper with a date put into the wall intentionally…and definitely plenty of old beer cans or bottles.”
“One of the oldest houses we ever worked on, built in the late 1700s, was loaded with black snakes. In another house, pretty recently, we found a giant hornet’s nest in the wall,” he says. Thankfully, it was inactive. The homeowner didn’t want it, so Josh gave it to someone who enjoys big game hunting. He had the hornet’s nest preserved, and today it’s on display in his game room as a conversation piece.
In 2012, when Peter Monahan purchased Gettysburg’s former Meade School and converted it into the Federal Pointe Inn, he uncovered surprises from top to bottom—literally. Plumbers, re-plumbing the entire 1896 building, discovered the original heating source—four large, double-sided fireplaces—hidden behind walls. Monahan opened the fireplaces, converted them to gas, and they now function within the hotel’s downstairs pub. Peeling away layers of lowered ceilings revealed tin tiles in three of the original, 12-foot ceilings.
But one of Monahan’s favorite discoveries was made in the attic. “Kids used to go upstairs to hoist the flag up on top of the building, and I guess they wanted to leave their mark,” he says. “I found students’ initials and dates, 1960 and ‘58 and so forth. Some of them are on the outside of the building, so you can look out the attic windows and see their signatures at the top of the school.”
DIY Renovations & Investigations
Could you be sitting on a goldmine? Could there be treasure or surprises hidden in your property? Here are some words of wisdom from Adams County experts.
“Our philosophy with historic properties is that we neatly disassemble—not necessarily demolish—things,” says Josh Austin of Mark Austin Building & Remodeling. Au says homeowners tackling DIY projects should follow several key pieces of advice.
“If you can, remove things in the reverse order that they went up, piece by piece,” he says. “But always plan for the unknown. It happens all the time—for example, you realize someone cut a huge portion of a beam out when they were installing indoor plumbing or heating, especially with older houses. Then you’ve uncovered a major structural problem, and it can be a headache.”
Two resources for detective work on your home’s history or its historic artifacts include:
The Adams County Historical Society (ACHS), where Timothy H. Smith and Andrew I. Dalton serve as collection managers. “We would recommend visiting the society to learn more about who occupied the house. We have all kinds of property records—deeds, tax lists, newspaper sales notices—and that would be a good place to start,” says Smith.
Historic Gettysburg Adams County (HGAC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the restoration and preservation of Adams County’s historic and architecturally significant structures—including barns. They also operate an architectural salvage warehouse.
Adams County Historical Society
368 Springs Ave., Gettysburg
Historic Gettysburg Adams County
The G.A.R. Hall
53 E. Middle St., Gettysburg