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The story of all of us

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The team who compiled, wrote, and produced the first chronological history of Middlesex County includes, seated from left, graphic designer Paris Ashton, chairperson Claudia Soucek, and illustrator Pat DePina; standing, author Larry S. Chowning and editor Archie Soucek. (Photo by Tom Chillemi)

by Tom Chillemi

In 1642, just 35 years after Jamestown was settled, English explorers ventured across the Piankatank River to settle a place that would become Middlesex County.

The county was officially established in 1668, and for the next 344 years there would not be a chronological written history—until now.

“Signatures in Time,” is the story of the “family of Middlesex County” and a living history of its people who faced tomorrows together.

“Our attempt was to lay a foundation,” said book committee chair Claudia Soucek of Christchurch. “You can’t tell it all, but we hope we have laid a good foundation for the people who will come after and we hope we have done justice by those who came before us.

“It was our hope to start something so that in another generation when people want to take this on again, they will have a foundation,” she said.

This was the eighth book for author Larry S. Chowning of Urbanna. “I got a lot of help from past generations because so many people over the years cared enough to write down things they felt were significant about their times,” he said.

“I think the book will enlighten people to the amazing history we have here in Middlesex. We were part of the founding of this country and every step of the way, from then until now, Middlesex people have been along for the American experience,” said Chowning.  

The committee wanted the history to be “genuine and personal, so that it came alive,” said the book’s editor, Archie Soucek of Christchurch. This approach to recording history was meant to be like “sitting around a kitchen table telling stories.”

The 400-page book tells the “story of all of us in the Middlesex family, tied together by their stories. Our ancestors lived through the same hardships, persevered together, and built and rebuilt together,” said A. Soucek.

Each chapter has bookends and starts with a national overview that puts the local history in perspective of the bigger picture. “They show how our little part of the world was affected and did affect the world,” he said.

The index and table of contents are tools—maps for the reader, said A. Soucek. “It was important for us to help the reader.”

Four major maps are vignettes of our ancestors’ world. “The maps show how we grew as a county and how our attitude changed about ourselves,” said A. Soucek.

“Signatures in Time” is filled with actual signatures of those who came before, antidotal information and photos, which together, serve as footprints of the past. “This book is signatures for those who come after,” he said. “It’s the first time a history of Middlesex has been written, and probably the last one for a long time.”

It’s the story of and for the people of Middlesex, said A. Soucek. “It gave us a better understanding of who we are and where we came from.”

C. Soucek enjoyed discovering history by researching the minutes of Middlesex County Board of Supervisors meetings from 1871 to 1900. “In many ways the issues were the same,” she said.

Roads are an example of this. People would complain to the board about road maintenance, or expanding the road system.

Middlesex lost a court battle with Gloucester to determine who would pay for a bridge across the Dragon Run.

C. Soucek recalled calling out in excitement while looking at a large map at the Virginia Historical Society and discovering a “slave road.”

The book addresses integration of schools with stories from some of the first 13 African-American students who chose to go to the white public schools.

A lot of people are not aware of the influential residents in Middlesex during Colonial and American Revolutionary times.

“We really tried to do it all,” said C. Soucek. “Every page is really full.”

The book’s illustrator, Pat DePina of Topping, said the most rewarding part was to envision history and try to picture what it was like in those days.

She visited historic places in the county to envision what they experienced. “I tried to put myself back in time and see what they saw, and feel what they felt. It was an emotional tie to our ancestors.”

On the book cover are DePina’s vignettes that introduce readers to characters and events in the book.

The book’s graphic designer, Paris Ashton, commented, “Middlesex County is rich with history and deserving of this long overdue book that thoroughly describes and illustrates its significance. It was my pleasure to be a part of such an important publication and to work with the committee that made it happen. Congratulations!”

“Signatures in Time: A Living History of Middlesex County, Virginia” is available at the Middlesex County Administrator’s Office in Saluda for $50. There also are limited embossed editions for $100. The book will be on sale at other locations in the near future.

posted 11.20.2012

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