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PA man uncovers rare find in attic

forage caps army (Auckland Museum/WikiCommons)

Chasing a pesky bat inside a residence Thursday led a Leechburg homeowner to discover a piece of American history.

“I was in ‘dad mode,’ trying to get a bat out of the house — up in the attic,” said Shawn McGonagle, a father of four. “I realized there was an old cloth bag tucked away behind a knee-high wall.”

The sealed bag contained two items.

“It was covered in soot when I found it. It had a cloth on top with a dress in the bag. The dress disintegrated, but the hat was in amazingly good shape,” McGonagle said.

Leechburg resident and borough historian Larry Boehm examined photos of the hat Friday. He believes it to be a forage cap-style of military hat, dating from 1864 to 1900.

“The style and color of the hat appears to be an American Army hat, and its owner was a field musician, like a bugler or the like,” Boehm said.

According to descriptions provided online by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, forage caps were the signature headgear of a Civil War soldier.

The McGonagles, previously of O’Hara, have lived in Leechburg for less than a year after purchasing and remodeling a former bank. Originally, it was a drugstore, built in 1893 for the John H. Parks family.

Parks was the town druggist, and his family lived upstairs, above the store.

Boehm noted folks sometimes find old items in the walls and obscure sections of attics in old homes.

“Houses from the 1800s to the early part of the 1900s are built with a method called balloon framing. It isn’t uncommon for things in an unfinished attic space to fall down between the studs and remain in the wall until someone opens it up for renovations or repairs,” Boehm said.

After their hat discovery — the bat is still at large — the McGonagles used the Google Lens app to help identify what type of hat had been hidden away for more than 120 years in their attic.

“Everything is covered with coal or ash. It’s not climate-controlled and very dry up there,” McGonagle said.

Shawn’s wife, Sarah, described the discovery as a happy moment.

“Besides its historical significance, it’s another piece of the Parks family that was left for us in this house,” she said. “Everything we’ve heard about the Parks family is positive. Their family was a pillar of this community, and I imagine they’d be happy to know another family is enjoying the space 130 years later.”

Boehm said the brass on the hat is remarkably well-preserved, partially because of the lack of light exposure.

“It didn’t tarnish because it was in a dark bag and sealed,” Boehm said.

The McGonagles said they plan to store the hat in a protective case, in a climate-controlled area, and are considering donating the hat to the Leechburg Area Museum and Historical Society.

“If they want it, I think I would give it to them,” Shawn McGonagle said.

The hat’s inseam is tattered in some areas, with fibers sticking out and some of the inside seam flaking off, but the manufacturer, G.W. Simmons & Co. of Oak Hall, Boston, is clearly legible.

McGonagle, 35, briefly, and gingerly, tried it on Friday afternoon.

“It’s a tight fit,” he said. “It makes me think about who wore it.”


(c) 2023 The Valley News-Dispatch

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