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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Now, to one family's private letters and other papers. Recently, a history professor and his students discovered thousands of documents going back as far as the 17th century. They were scrolled away in an old mansion in Maryland.

As NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports, they are the papers of a prominent family.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Adam Goodheart gets excited about almost every scrap of paper he finds at Poplar Grove.

Professor ADAM GOODHEART (American History, Washington College): And this is right where it was when we found it. Directions for using the revolving steam washer, dated Easton, Maryland, June 7, 1832.

BLAIR: Goodheart is an American history professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland. For about five years now, he's been taking his students to Poplar Grove - as the property is called - as a way of making history come alive. The place became even more important when they recently discovered boxes and crates full of family documents in a small room upstairs.

Prof. GOODHEART: My students just got really excited and started opening up some of these boxes and looking at papers. And I was saying to them, you know, these are the family's private papers, you might not want to be going through all of the stuff. But they got so excited that we all started looking through it and realizing that there was really a treasure trove here that we hadn't imagined.

BLAIR: Diaries, letters, political handbills, checkbook ledgers. Poplar Grove has been occupied more or less continuously by the same family since the mid-1700s. But it is not an untouched piece of history. These days, the house is occasionally rented out to hunters. Their big camouflage overalls hang in the living room, and a very modern girlie poster hangs in the kitchen.

Prof. GOODHEART: The deer heads are circa late 20th century, I would say. Maybe even early 21st.

BLAIR: From the outside, the large house looks to be in surprisingly good shape, given its age. But inside, it's kind of a mess - paint is peeling, vines are growing through cracks in the windows, and some of the stairs feel a little iffy under the feet. James Wood owns the property now.

Mr. JAMES WOOD (Owner, Poplar Grove): This whole place is sort of, as I describe it, a place in need of a plan.

BLAIR: James Wood is a descendant of the original owners of Poplar Grove, the prominent Emory family. The first known resident, Captain John Register Emory, was an officer in the Revolutionary War. Another Emory was a general in the War of 1812. James Wood says he's tried to keep the place in good shape, but the upkeep is tremendous.

Ms. MARY WOOD (James Wood's Mother): The first thing I said to my son when he got it, I was like, sell it. So that's not a patriotic thing to go over the radio.

BLAIR: Mary Wood, James' mother, appreciates the history of Poplar Grove. She herself wrote a book about the women in the family. But she says to get this rambling house back in running order would be an enormous undertaking. As for the papers, this is a family that saved everything.

Ms. WOOD: I cannot understand why they didn't throw stuff out. I mean, little receipts for 25 cents. Anyway, these are all treasures now.

BLAIR: Among recent findings, firsthand accounts of slavery. In the papers of General Thomas Emory, there's a letter about Emory slaves who had escaped through the Underground Railroad in the 1830s. And an anti-slavery petition sent to the Maryland Legislature and signed by dozens of citizens of Queen Anne's County.

Prof. GOODHEART: Many people who, themselves, were slave owners including a number of Emorys. There's W.H. Emory right here, who we believe was William Emory, the son of General Thomas, who was a member of the Legislature considering this. So this is a son petitioning his father.

BLAIR: Adam Goodheart feels like he knows the Emorys after reading their personal letters and learning about the details of their lives. He and the other historians working on the project even make regular visits to the family cemetery next to the house.

Prof. GOODHEART: Greetings Emorys and thank you, as always, for letting us come here to this place that was so important to so many generations of you.

BLAIR: Back at the house, Mary Wood says she doesn't think any of the Emory ancestors will mind that their private family papers will leave Poplar Grove for the first time in more than 300 years, except for one.

Ms. WOOD: Well, I'll tell you the one who would object that I know of is Lloyd, the one who…

Mr. WOOD: Oh.

Ms. WOOD: …left the place to James because he was a true hermit. So he is turning over in his grave.

BLAIR: The Emory papers from Poplar Grove are now being studied at the Maryland State Archives. Adam Goodheart started a blog about the project where you can see photos of the house and read transcripts of some of the original documents.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

NORRIS: And among those findings at Poplar Grove, a racy 19th century poem. You can hear a reading of part of it at npr.org.

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