The cool, gray days of winter make a wonderful time to perusing the warm, well-lighted galleries of a museum. While some folks might take their historical curiosity to big-city venues like the Smithsonian, not all interesting finds are in the crowded confines of urban areas. The smaller museums of the northern Blue Ridge Highlands each have their own niche and contain some cool artifacts that might surprise you. From the Model-T Ford hearse to 400-year-old Indian pottery to the bed where Mary Draper Ingles may (or may not) have been born, the holdings in the northern Blue Ridge Highlands museums are worth a visit.
Schoolchildren are spookily surprised to find a 1926 Model-T Ford hearse in the basement of the Andrew Johnston Museum in Pearisburg. In fact, some imagine seeing something stirring in the back. The hearse, on long-term loan from Vest & Sons Funeral Home in White Gate, is fitted out with wooden trim, made by an earlier Vest undertaker, who was also a cabinetmaker.
The Andrew Johnston Museum is also notable for its bedpan collection – lovely bedpans, some of them. The assemblage of porcelain, glass, and enamel urinals and bedpans looks as pretty as something grandma might have on display in her china cabinet. Another historically significant item is the bullet-riddled weathervane from the top of Giles County Courthouse. The fish weathervane was damaged during crossfire in an 1862 Civil War skirmish in Pearisburg.
Girls and women played with their hair in a big way in Victorian times. Another of Andrew Johnston Museum’s unusual item is a decorative hair wreath in which human tresses are fashioned into flowers and sprigs. In the Victorian era of the late 1800s, close friends would exchange locks of hair as a token of their relationship and take clippings from a friend or relative after death as a keepsake. Hair wreaths, like the one at the museum, were assembled in a horseshoe-shaped wreath. The museum’s hair wreath seems to contain hair of several women, judging by the variety of colors.
Crab Orchard Museum & Pioneer Park in Tazewell (276- 988-6755; www.craborchard.com) is the place to see animals of the past, sometimes way past – 570 million years ago, when their gastropod fossil was a living snail. Crab Orchard’s exhibits contain woolly mammoth bones, shell items from a nearby Woodland Indian archaeological excavation, a medical bleeding device, and the stuffed hide of a legendary, cow-slaughtering bear. Also a ring made from the kneecap of a Confederate soldier.
The ring was whittled by a friend of the unknown soldier, another inmate of the Yankee prison where the fellow with the kneecap died. It’s a commemoration piece, according to Crab Orchard Education Director Joan Yates, and it bears a small flag carved into its surface.
Besides the ring, the museum harbors a silk wedding dress fashioned into a Confederate flag, a collection of Civil War guns, and a small replica of a distillery made by someone who obviously knew his subject. There is a wooden pitchfork crafted from a single sapling and a drinking cup created from a stone-hard tree burl. The museum houses the nation’s largest collection of antique woven coverlets from Southwest Virginia, each with a family story about its use and origins. The museum is flanked by a pioneer village of 15 restored 18th and 19th century houses, shops, and farm buildings, as well as gardens and a guest house building, scheduled to open by summer 2013.
The Wilderness Road Museum in the Pulaski County village of Newbern contains what some say is Mary Draper Ingles’ 1732 birth bed, which would have come down the Valley Road with the Draper family when they migrated from Philadelphia. Not everyone agrees on the bed’s origins though. But it can be said with assurance that the museum does have a very old bed in the Pulaski Room. The museum also holds an 1860-era Chickering piano forte that is – amazingly — not hands-off. Visiting children are allowed to plink on the antique.
There’s also a piece of the Ingles ferry that Mary Draper Ingles’ husband William Ingles used to operate across the New River near Radford. And – for an element of mystery – the museum displays several items still waiting to be identified, such as a round wooden block with a handle that activates a variety of choppers. “We ask our visitors what this is, and one of these days someone will tell us,” says museum volunteer Judith Harman.
Radford’s Glencoe Museum in the home of Confederate General Gabriel Wharton and houses an exhibit on the 1864 Civil War Union burning of the railroad bridge at the site of today’s Memorial Bridge. “Key features of the war in Southwest Virginia were attempts of cut off supplies to Confederates, so we have samples of the minerals of that day and sections of the actual railroad,” said Scott Gardner, museum director.
But the biggest finds are the “stuff” of Radford’s first residents, Woodland periods Indians who lived in the just at few blocks away at Bissett Park around 1600-1635. The excavation, called the “Trigg Dig,” unearthed pottery, arrowheads, and jewelry. Glencoe also contains a tool collection, including some woodworking tools modified for children to use at the museum. Upstairs are a re-creation of a period bedroom, photos of Radford beauty queens, and what may or may not be Martha Washington’s saddle.
Located in the 1845 Williams-Brown House, the Salem Museum recently installed a terrifically popular exhibit on a vanished amusement park: “Lakeside: Sixty Summers of Ups and Downs.” Begun in 1920 as a pool, the park was the destination for thrill seekers in western Virginia until it closed in the mid-1980s. The centerpiece, the Shooting Star wooden roller coaster reputed to be the world’s fastest at one time, is memorialized in a 12-foot scale model that attracts children like a magnet. Photographs, souvenirs from the arcades, signs, and t-shirts evoke memories of Lakeside’s sixty summers.
Visitors also make a beeline for the Civil War exhibit, which documents the local Battle of Hanging Rock in which Confederate forces under General John McCausland won a substantial victory against Union General David Hunter. The museum contains weaponry of the type used in this battle, Confederate money, and newspaper clippings.
The most surprising item held by the museum is a 1000-year-old Peruvian wool burial garment, one of many antiquities collected by Salem philanthropists Cabell and Shirley Brand during their world travels. The Brands also donated African masks, winged deities from Bali, jewelry from China, and paintings on Indian ivory.
Andrew Johnston House
208 North Main Street, Pearisburg
Wed-Fri 12-5pm; Sat-Sun 2-5pm
(540) 921-1050; www.gilescountyhistorical.org/
Crab Orchard Museum & Pioneer Park
3663 Crab Orchard Road, Tazewell
Located just off 19-460 on Crab Orchard Road
Tues. – Sat. 9-5; Memorial Day to Labor Day; Sun. 1-5
Admission: $4 adults, $2 children 6-12
(276) 988-6755; http://craborchardmuseum.com
619 2nd St, Radford
Tues. – Sat. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday 1-4 p.m.
Admission: $3 donation suggested
Salem Museum & Historical Society
801 E. Main St, Salem
Tues, – Fri. 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday noon -5 p.m.
(540) 389-6760; www.salemmuseum.org
Wilderness Road Regional Museum
5240 Wilderness Road, Newbern
Exit 98 off I-81 (Dublin Exit), take route #611 (Follow Brown Signs)
Mon. – Sat. 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Sunday 1:30 p.m.- 4:30 p.m.
Admission: $2 adults, $1 children 6-12