Lou Cataldo Keeping County History Alive

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By: Michael C. Bailey
Published: 12/17/10

In the basement of the former Barnstable County House of Correction sits a treasure trove of the county’s history many people don’t even know exists.

Framed posters from John F. Kennedy’s 1960 Presidential election campaign hang near a high set of shelves that holds, among other things, a copy of the “Look” magazine commemorating President Kennedy’s assassination – just a few of many items pertaining to the Kennedy family, including a few that are exclusive to the county archives.

“We have an accumulation of Kennedy memorabilia, perhaps some that I’m quite sure that the JKF Museum doesn’t have,” said county archivist Louis Cataldo of Barnstable, referring to the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum.

On the same shelf sit several volumes detailing Cape Cod residents’ role in the Civil War. Nearby, in a canister that looks appropriate for protecting a reel of film, sits a short stack of vinyl records. On top of this stack is a nearly 60-year-old dictation of a ship’s log originally written by -- as identified on the hand-written label -- “Capt. Curtis” and “Ensign Jerauld.”

The Smithsonian Institute has verified these and similar recordings as the very first known oral history recordings in the United States, Mr. Cataldo said. “We pioneered oral history in the United States right here” on Cape Cod.

According to Mr. Cataldo, these items are but a fraction of the material now stored in the basement room that passes as the county archives, and that room holds about 3,000 items -- only half of the county’s total archival materials.

“This is more or less, we feel, a holding cell,” he said. “It’s a difficult thing for the public to come in and view these things…there’s a lot of stuff crammed in here.”

The rest of the materials are in storage, out of sight and out of mind, but Mr. Cataldo is working with county officials to rectify that issue and establish the “Barnstable County Cataldo Archives” to make the county’s historical resources readily available to the public.

Mr. Cataldo took the Barnstable County Board of County Commissioners and E. Mark Zielinski, county administrator, on a tour of the archives last week to showcase its materials and encourage their support for the Cataldo Archives project. Based on the commissioners’ reactions during the tour, they are ready to extend that support.

“If we don’t have respect and appreciation for our past we really have no interest on our future. We have to know where we come from to know where we’re going,” Commissioner William Doherty said.

Mary L. (Pat) Flynn, chairman of the board, called Mr. Cataldo’s effort “such a significant project” for Cape Cod.

The multi-phase project, which is already underway, first involves inventorying and organizing the thousands of books, magazines, newspaper clippings, video and audio recordings in the county archives – much of that material, including many of the recordings, collected by Mr. Cataldo personally.

From there, under the direction of archives director Tess Korkuch of Barnstable, volunteers will take the hard copy documents and recordings and convert them to electronic formats for easy sharing with the public.

Ms. Korkuch hinted at the scope of this massive conversion process by noting that converting about 2,000 documents for “Tales of Cape Cod,” Mr. Cataldo’s non-profit historical preservation organization, to electronic media took her 2,000 hours of work over the course of two years.

The estimated cost of converting the material is $44,697, according to the project plan developed by Ms. Korkuch. This includes materials and equipment necessary for scanning hard copy documents and converting old audio recordings on vinyl and reel-to-reel – some of those dating back to the 1950s – and VHS tape format to the appropriate electronic format (PDFs, MP3s, et cetera).

The project has already received $15,000 in grants and outside donations, $2,000 of which has been used to buy a new computer for the archives conversion process. Mr. Cataldo said he and Ms. Korkuch are seeking addition grant funding to carry the project through to its conclusion.

They also hope to use this initiative as a springboard for forging stronger partnerships with town-level historians and historical societies, through which these entities can share resources.

They asked of the county commissioners their support in the form of providing the archives with space on the county website for a web page, through which the public would eventually be able to access every document and recording in the archives.

In the long term, Mr. Cataldo said he is hoping to raise money to support the construction of a full-fledged county archives building elsewhere in the Barnstable County Court Complex. “We could house not only what you see here,” he said, “but certain things you might want the public to see that you can’t see,” meaning items currently in storage.

Museum, Jail In Need

Ms. Korkuch identified 16 categories for the archival material, which includes a category for Mr. Cataldo himself, who pioneered the process for storing and identifying fingerprints electronically (an autographed photo of J. Edgar Hoover, thanking Mr. Cataldo for his innovation, is on display in the archives room).

Other categories include the Trayser Museum and the county’s original wooden jailhouse – both of which are located on Route 6A in Barnstable, about a half-mile away from the old house of correction.

The Trayser Museum building has since 2005 housed the Coast Guard Heritage Museum, which faces a similar problem as the county archives: too much stuff and not enough space to put it in.

“This is probably the most extensive collection of Coast Guards material open to the public right now,” said William E. Collette of Barnstable, president of the Trayer Museum Group’s board of directors and a retired USCG chief petty officer, but the lack of funding for building rehabilitation and expansion makes for cramped quarters.

The former US Custom House and Post Office houses thousands of pieces, ranging from photos and painting of US Coast Guard operations to model boats and aircraft, from actual pieces of equipment to uniforms donated to the museum by local USCG veterans.

“The building needs a lot of rehab,” Mr. Collette said, estimating at a price tag of at least $300,000. “It’s, realistically, beyond our fundraising capabilities.”

“Yeah, we’re struggling,” said Jack B. McGrath of Chatham, vice-president of the board and a retired USCG pilot.

As a historic building, the museum is eligible for Community Preservation Act funding. Mr. Collette said other town projects have taken precedence over the museum, but he hopes that the museum will soon move up on the town project list.

Notably, Mr. Cataldo led the charge to save the building in 1958, when it had been declared surplus federal property. The museum was sold to Barnstable in 1960 for $1.

Mr. Cataldo was also responsible for preserving the county’s original jailhouse, which was built circa 1690 and in regular use until 1820, when the Barnstable County House of Corrections was built. The all-wood-structure jail was transported from its original location on Old Jail Lane to its current site, next to the Trayser Museum, in 1972.

However, that same year vandals torched the building, causing significant damage to the jail’s interior that has never been fixed. The Cape and Islands Paranormal Research Society (CAIPRS) is working with the Trayser Museum to restore the jail to its former state.

For more information about the Coast Guard Heritage Museum, visit the official website at www.coastguardheritagemuseum.org.

For more information on the wooden jail restoration project or to make a donation, contact Derek Bartlett at 508-771-2725 or at dbartlett@caiprs.com.

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