If you wanted to write a suspense story about two slim notebooks containing the handwritten records from the 1880s and 1890s that chronicle the birth of Cradle Beach, you would have a difficult time outdoing the truth.

About half a century after they were written, the notebooks, the only surviving records from that era, were apparently loaned to a longtime camp trustee who never mentioned the books to her family. Found by her adult children after her death and mistaken for diaries, with which they were stored, the books were set aside to be burned. Instead, the trustee’s son stored the books for two more decades, rediscovering them last year when he cleaned out his law office. The attorney’s son then surprised and delighted the current board of Cradle Beach by delivering the notebooks back to them.

“You read sometimes about a person who buys a painting and finds something like a Picasso pasted to the back,” said Mortimer Sullivan Jr., the longtime attorney who last year discovered the notebooks in a bag he thought contained only his mother’s diaries. “When I realized what they were, I sort of had that feeling.”

After the 1992 death of Gertrude H. Sullivan, who served as a trustee and trustee emeritus at Cradle Beach for more than 50 years until her death, Mortimer Sullivan and his sister found the canvas bag among her belongings. “My sister or I pulled one or two of the books out and they were obviously diaries that my mother had been keeping,” said Mortimer Sullivan. “We agreed that we should burn them. We didn’t see the minutes books.”

Rather than destroy them immediately, Mortimer Sullivan put the bag containing the books into a closet in his law office. Last year, when he was closing the office, he finally pulled it out again. “I thought, ‘Maybe I should look at these diaries, they might have some historical value,’ ” he said. “And that’s when I found the minutes books.”

Moving passages

The lined notebooks contain the handwritten minutes of meetings held to organize the Fresh Air Mission, which later became Cradle Beach, and of the Buffalo Fresh Air Mission Hospital, a short-lived effort to open a hospital for children suffering from cholera and other diseases.

One notebook runs from 1889 to 1892 and the other from 1894 to 1914. The older notebook, which chronicles the start of the Fresh Air Mission, is filled with gracefully flowing handwriting; the later pages of the other are filled with typewritten text pasted to the pages. Both also contain newspaper clippings, letters and other informal records.

While many of the pages are minutes of meetings that document purchases, donations, publicity and other mundane issues, the books contain some moving passages.

In its first year of the Fresh Air Mission’s operation, before a camp was opened, 106 urban children were housed with farm families in Orchard Park, North Evans, Silver Creek, East Aurora, Corfu and Middleport. As the group prepared for its second year, Miss Alice Moore wrote, “Often we hear of some mark of love or care that still reaches the little children from the motherly women in the country.”

The Fresh Air Mission, which the first report says was started by “two teachers of the Universalist Sunday School,” set a goal of assisting “the poor children of the tired and often wretched mothers living in the crowded tenements or on the unhealthy flats of Buffalo … We ought to reach, first, the children of the unworthy, wretchedly poor, for from these little children we may expect the criminals of the future and the salvation of the children will be the salvation of this class in the community.”

Although Mortimer Sullivan had no idea why the books were with his mother’s possessions, the manila envelopes that held the books offered a clue. Upon each envelope is written, “Mrs. Cornelia H. Allen, School of Social Wk.” Allen, after whom Cornelia H. Allen Hall on UB’s South campus is named, was a pioneering social worker who was on the faculty of the university’s School of Social Work for 31 years. She was also the director of Cradle Beach from 1947 to 1958, when she became the camp’s director of casework, a position she held for decades until her death in 1979.

“We were very close to the Allens and to Cradle Beach starting in the 1930s,” said Mortimer Sullivan, who himself was a counselor at the camp from 1951 to 1953.

“I think that Cornelia Allen asked my mother, or my mother volunteered, to use her knowledge of the history of Cradle Beach to write some kind of a historical document. I’m guessing that Cornelia gave her these or loaned her these to work from. That’s a guess, but it does make sense.”

‘Just go in there’

After discovering the books, Mortimer Sullivan called his son, Mark Sullivan, who is executive vice president and chief operating officer of Catholic Heath.

“My father said, ‘I have something that I think someone would want to have,” said Mark Sullivan. “He used the article when he spoke of them; he said, ‘These are THE first minutes from Cradle Beach camp.’ ”

The Sullivans agreed that the books should be returned to the current board of directors of Cradle Beach.

Mark Sullivan called Bryan Carr, president of the board of directors of Cradle Beach, which has a camp in Angola and serves more than 1,100 children with disabilities and from low-income families each year. Carr is also production director at The Buffalo News, which has been involved with Cradle Beach almost since its inception; the books record a 1914 donation of $131.16 to the Fresh Air Mission from Edward H. Butler Jr., then publisher of The News.

Carr said Mark Sullivan asked to attend the next board meeting, saying only that he planned to bring something and “I think you’re going to be pleasantly surprised.”

The day of the board meeting in October, Mark Sullivan said, “I had the books with me the whole day, every meeting I went to. And when I was walking into The Buffalo News, I took a deep breath and just realized that I had in my hands an amazing piece of history.”

After being introduced, Mark Sullivan told the board, “On behalf of the Mortimer Sullivan Jr. family I am honored and pleased to return these newly discovered documents to Cradle Beach. … The work that you, the board and the many volunteers and staff do at Cradle Beach is incredible. May this journey back in time to your roots inspire, energize, and keep strong the wonderful mission and service you provide.”

“As I started to tell the story to the board members around the table, their mood changed,” said Mark Sullivan. “To fulfill the mission of Cradle Beach and to be on a board that is of such importance to the community is one thing, but when you get reaffirmed with something that can reconnect you to your own history, that’s even better.”

Many familiar names

One board member who was particularly moved by the minutes books was Dana Kimberly of Rochester, president of Danforth Development Inc. and a fourth-generation member of the board. Her great-grandfather, Shepard Kimberly, was on the board and served as president starting in 1912, and her great-grandmother’s sister, Evelyn Fiske, was a trustee. Both are mentioned in the minutes, along with many other familiar Buffalo names — Ransom, Sprague, Kittinger, Tillinghast, Albright, Schoellkopf, Kelly, Sidway, Cary and Almy.

“He really understood what they meant to the history of the organization, and it was very touching,” Kimberly said.

Kimberly, too, is captivated by the records. “If you are interested in history or are just a curious person, it was just fascinating to see how they operated and some of the ways they communicated about what was going on with Cradle Beach.”

After the meeting, Kimberly wrote to tell her sister and brother about the books. “They both immediately sent messages back saying they were thrilled, and they would both really like to see them when they were ready to be seen.”

The books, whose sewn bindings have loosened and covers have come off, were sent to a local conservator to be cleaned and stabilized, and their contents were transcribed. Now Carr is hoping to find a home for them where they can be preserved, displayed and made available to students and researchers.

“We said we would be the caretakers of these books until we found somebody to donate them to,” he said.