• Rachel C Oliver

The Cowart Family Heirloom Project

Updated: Jun 18, 2019

My dad has told stories about our family history my entire life. When I was a kid, it seemed he knew all of our ancestors personally. I would ask, "Dad, you didn't really know these people, did you?" Of course he didn't, but his stories were so colorful and real that it seemed he was telling them first hand! My dad, Bill Cowart, grew up in south Alabama during the depression and World War II. There was no electricity in his home until 1938 and no TV until the 1950s. Storytelling, reading poetry and books aloud was how my great-grandfather passed along stories and family history. My great-grandfather passed away in 1940 when my father was only 6 years old. But even today he remembers everything in great detail! I relish these stories and hope to preserve them and these wonderful family heirlooms for future generations.


In this series of articles and photos, I plan to document my journey as I preserve documents, clothing, photographs and other items that have been in my family since they moved to Alabama in 1839. Most of the items have remained, untouched, in an old, painted trunk for most than 100 years.


I have not figured out this preservation stuff on my own, however. My guide is a former conservator at Emory University. I hope it will be an inspiration to others who are interested in preserving their family's historical items. If I am unsure about anything, I can contact her to make sure I am doing things correctly. Later on, I will show how to properly and safely wash and store cotton clothing.

This old trunk where all of the treasures are stored. I think they got a deal on green paint in the early 1930s. They painted a lot of furniture and a fence this same color.



My first project is to use my newly-learned humidifying methods to safely unfold and store paper documents in acid-free paper folders. Unfolding a document requires a regular kitchen sponge, a cake rack and a couple of plastic containers. Cover and set a timer for 45 minutes. As the old paper humidifies, it becomes easier to unfold safely. After doing this a few times the paper will completely unfold and can be stored in a folder and placed under heavy books until it's mostly flat. Documents shouldn't be humidified for more than a total of 8 hours.

This "Receipt for Linement" is one of the first documents I've unfolded and prepared to store. I write with pencil on each folder before putting in the document. I am storing the folded documents in an acid-free box while they wait their turn!

"Receipt for Linement". I think this was written by my great-great grandmother Nancy T. Cowart (1824-1907). The ingredients are so interesting and what is Opedildock?

Apparently Opodeldoc (strange ingredient) is a liniment made from camphor oil, olive oil, rosemary oil, powdered soap, ammonia and alcohol.


Below is one of the several land deeds I have unfolded and stored. This 160 acres of land was bought for $.50 and acre! With the help of a grid that I also found, we can determine where these acreages are and if they are still in the family today.

Here is a receipt for 160 acres of land bought for $80.07 by my great-great grandfather, Jackson Cowart on April 10, 1855. I have it stored in an acid-free envelope with countless others. With the help of a map and my dad, I think we can figure out where this is and if it still remains in the family. I'll pick out a few of the others to share.

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