FORT EDWARD u Two years ago, a researcher came to Washington County Deputy Historian Loretta Bates with an interest in the area's history during the American Revolution.

Bates had just what the researcher was looking for: reams of documents that spanned 1774 to 1806, meticulously kept by one of the area's earliest and most prominent citizens of the time.

From a shelf, she pulled down an acid-free box used for preserving precious and delicate documents. Inside were two books of land deeds, bonds, receipts and maps kept by John Williams, a surgeon, soldier and politician who lived in what is now Salem.

But there was a problem: The documents that had survived a war and three centuries were in terrible shape.

"There were pieces of paper that were falling out of the book," Bates said. "The glue that was holding them in the book was damaging the documents."

Something had to be done to preserve a large piece of the early days of Washington County.

"They were too valuable to not be able to use them," Bates said. "We could not use these books."

Bates, along with former Washington County Historian Joseph Cutshall-King, successfully obtained a $14,000 grant from the state to preserve the documents.

The papers were given a chemical treatment to reverse the aging process, digitized to a compact disc and put on microfilm.

The original copies now sit in the Washington County historian's office in four large portfolio binders.

Stark black ink stands out on the yellowed, awkwardly shaped pages.

The documents were written in flowing, almost artistic cursive that has all but become extinct in a world of computers and ink jet printers.

The preservation and restoration project, which was performed by the Vermont-based Brown's River Records Preservation Services, took less than a year.

No one is quite sure how the documents of John Williams came into the possession of Washington County.

"They were here when I first arrived in 1993," Bates said. "They were always just sitting around."

Williams immigrated from England to what is now Salem in 1775.

A surgeon by training, he was chosen to be a representative in the Provincial Congress and later served as a colonel in the Charlotte County Committee of Safety.

By the end of the war, Williams prospered as one of the largest landowners in the county, owning nearly 20 percent of the area - much of the property being obtained from loyalists who fled the newly born country for England or Canada.

Williams would go on to serve as a state representative and judge in Washington County.

"He's got quite a resume," said Washington County Clerk and Historian Dona Crandall.

By the time he died, Williams had amassed hundreds of documents that, in 2009, illuminate how early residents of the area lived.

"People get to see how their lives were shaped by our early settlers," said Cutshall-King, a vice president at Adirondack Community College. "We forget why we are here because of people like Williams. He helped lay out roads. He helped to get the first surveying for what later became the Champlain Canal. He was a mover and shaker."

The hope is that the newly preserved documents will be used by scholars, land surveyors or genealogists who are delving into the area's past.

"They will always have a pertinence," Cutshall-King said. "They will show something or reveal something. And for the curious, people can just say, 'Wow look at what happened back then.'"

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