Hidden treasure: Chance find, man's effort bring family's history home

Charleston Museum archivist Jennifer Scheetz looks over a letter written to George Lynes in 1840 while his great-great-grandson, Jack Lynes, explains its contents.

This story is like one of those surprises on "Antiques Roadshow."

A man buys some furniture at an estate sale from a former plantation and finds some papers more than a century old in a buffet drawer, including a bill of sale for four slaves. He puts the papers in a file cabinet, where they remain for nearly 35 years.

He finally decides to track down the family. The family is delighted to find out more about their ancestor. They hope the findings might boost an effort to restore a Berkeley County historic site, maybe even turn it into a tourist attraction. The man who found the papers feels better.

Such is the story of the long-forgotten documents of George Lynes, the minister who owned Foxbank Plantation between modern Goose Creek and Moncks Corner.

The story starts in 1978, when Russ Breault, who now lives in Peachtree City, Ga., found a bundle of papers in the drawer of a buffet he bought at an estate sale. He believed the furniture came from Foxbank Plantation.

Many of the papers related to George Lynes. An 1845 bill of sale for four slaves was nestled alongside an 1849 certificate of ordination of Lynes as a Baptist minister.

Breault said he knew the papers were valuable and put them in a file cabinet. He put the bill of sale between two sheets of plastic so he could show it off from time to time without damaging it.

"I certainly recognized that they had value, and my dilemma was I didn't really purchase these documents," Breault said by telephone last week. "They just happened to be in the buffet that I bought."

A few weeks ago, Breault felt it was time to look for Lynes' descendants.

He found Jack Lynes of Aiken, George's great-great-grandson, through an Internet search that led him to his genealogical website. They met in a restaurant near the Atlanta airport, and Breault turned over the papers, free of charge.

Lynes, an insurance inspector who had spent years studying his family tree, was thrilled.

"We haven't discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls or anything," Lynes said, "but it's still remarkable that a man, unknown to us, more than 30 years ago bought some old furniture and in them was discovered old family papers, and then all these years later has come forward to give them back."

Lynes points out that Breault knows the value of historic artifacts. He's spent much of his time since 1978 studying and lecturing on the Shroud of Turin. Many believe it to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ, the image burned on it by the power of his resurrection.

"My position really on the shroud is that it's a great mystery," said Breault, an advertising salesman. "I compare it to the pyramids, Stonehenge, Easter Island, many of the great unsolved mysteries of the world."

Lynes, his wife, three children and a grandson were at The Charleston Museum on Wednesday morning, signing over the papers to the archives.

"I want to encourage other people who have this kind of stuff not just to keep it in drawers," Lynes said.

The stash includes a bundle of other papers, including a small notebook of 19th-century home remedies. For example, according to the notebook, the treatment for a lame horse is to pour two pints of turpentine in the bad hoof and set it on fire.

"People are interested in these details of everyday life," museum archivist Jennifer Scheetz said with a laugh.

George Lynes paid $2,800 for the four slaves, identified as plantation cook Delia and three others, Hannah, Judy and Dandy.

"That was a lot of money," Jack Lynes said. "It looks like he was keeping the family together."

Lynes didn't even know his ancestor was a pastor until he saw the ordination certificate.

George Lynes was a minister at Bethlehem Baptist Church. The church was built on the site of the St. James Goose Creek Chapel of Ease, a cross-shaped brick Anglican church destroyed during the Revolutionary War. Lynes, who died in 1870, is buried in the cemetery there.

Foxbank Plantation is off Cypress Gardens Road west of U.S. Highway 52. Now, it's the site of a development marked out for 2,400 houses and a town center. The chapel of ease site is on the other side of U.S. 52, in a more secluded area off Old Highway 52.

Jack Lynes has been working with a subcommittee of the Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce to buy the old chapel of ease site, get it on the National Register of Historic Places, and put in parking areas and kiosks to tell the story to visitors. That's one of the reasons he was so thrilled to get his hands on the old papers.

Michael Heitzler, an avid historian of the Goose Creek area and mayor of the modern city, was also delighted to hear about the Lynes papers. He cites two of the documents in his most recent book, "The Goose Creek Bridge: Gateway to Sacred Places," which is now in the hands of the editors at the University of South Carolina Press.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.