Mapping out the past: copper printing plates presented to town

  • Copper plates etched with maps of the streets, topography and waterways of the Athol area, originally created as part of a series by the U.S. Geological Society, were gifted to the Athol Public Library on Jan. 17. Pictured from left to right — Ken Vaidulas, Stuart Deane, Susan Deane O'Connor, and Director of the Athol Public Library, Jean Shaughnessy. Athol Daily News/Sarah Robertson

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 1/17/2019 9:00:18 PM

ATHOL — A string of coincidences over a long period of time has resulted in the arrival in Athol of a piece of town history — a set of U.S. Government solid copper printing plates for the town’s topographical map, plus a copy of the map itself.

The plates and map were presented to the town at the public library on Thursday.

The masters were etched over hundreds of hours by hand onto solid copper plates, then transferred to lithographic stones that were used in the actual printing of multiple copies of early U.S. Geological Society maps, known as “Quads.” The usual set includes three plates – one for cultural features and text in black, one for bodies of water in blue and one for topological contours in brown. A map is thus produced in a three-step printing process. The original copper plates themselves measure 17x21” and weigh 38 pounds per set. The reverse etching on the plates makes possible the mirror-image positive print for paper maps.

To begin the story, the U.S. Government mapped out the topography of the country from the late 1800s until the 1950s. The map of Athol was done in the years 1943-44, capturing the streets, roads and buildings of that time in addition to bodies of water and topological contours that obviously continue to this day.

By 2015, however, after the plates had been stored in a government warehouse for decades, the decision was made to put them up for a Government Services Administration auction as surplus. A number of the sets had been previously distributed as gifts, but the remainder was put up for sale, with most going for about $500, though the quadrant for Nantucket went for $17,000.

Florida treasure hunter/real estate developer Bob Benson, originally from Provincetown and Maine, made a decision to buy up the lot of plates that were not being heavily bid upon. He ended up with 860 sets in 41 states. After offering to sell the plates at reduced cost to surveyors around the country as a way of preserving this heritage, he put the rest up for sale to the general public.

“I was absolutely amazed,” wrote Benson in a letter to the surveyors. “Each plate was quite literally a true work of art. It’s hard to imagine the difficulty of the field work and then the painstaking hours it took to reverse etch the detail onto each plate using a magnifying glass.

“I feel the best way to preserve these historical engravings is to find a way to get them back home into the hands of those who would most appreciate them.

“Wouldn’t it be shame if they were melted down for the scrap copper value?”

Here enters Steve Deane, the writer’s brother and a former Athol resident now living in Florida as a yacht broker for Luke Brown Yachts. He has been a broker in several transactions with Benson, has bought a piece of land in Virginia from Benson, is now a personal friend and even at times of hurricanes retreats inland to shelter at Benson’s home.

By coincidence, a co-worker in the Luke Brown office is an advertising agent who creates websites. Benson needed a website to advertise and sell his copper plates. Deane put the two together and even participated in the construction of the website (usaengravings.com), including the filming of the video history of the plates.

“We put quite a bit of time into building the site,” said Deane. “We finally went onto the site to noodle out how it flowed, to see if it worked. I said, ‘Let me look at Massachusetts.’ As the plates are listed alphabetically, the first one that came up was Athol. I said, ‘Ben, I just saw the map of Athol. I have family there. Family is buried there. I’d like to buy that set.’”

“’That’s a nice looking map,’ he said, noting all the detail. ‘I can’t charge you for those plates. You’re a friend. You can have them.’”

Deane, in turn, contacted the writer, who contacted our sister, Susan (Deane) O’Connor of Athol, who provided the names of head librarian Jean Shaughnessy, town manager Shaun Suhoski and historical society president Suzanne Whipps, all of whom were contacted for feedback. Shaughnessy took the matter to the next meeting of town department heads to discuss where the plates might best be viewed by the public.

“These plates have a story to tell. Let’s get them with people who would most appreciate them,” said Steve Deane of the family’s desire to get the plates back home in Athol, “We had a great foundation in growing up in a hard-working middle class small town. We got our work ethic somewhere. Athol was some percentage of that. Athol served us well. Maybe it’s just the times, but that doesn’t seem to exist as much anymore.”

“We’d love to have the plates,” Shaughnessy reported after that meeting. “We’d like to display them first at the library and then share them with the Historical Society.”

“We would be honored and love to display them in our museum,” added Ken Vaidulas of the Historical Society’s board of directors.

And so a piece of history finally settles into a new home, delineating a moment in time from three quarters of a century ago.


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