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Middlesex Museum celebrates 75th year

by Mary Steed Ewell

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The first home of the Middlesex County Museum in 1935 was the Old Clerk’s Office, which was built in the 1800s and still stands in the county courtyard.
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The Middlesex County Museum moved to its present location in 1998. The museum is on Route 17 Business, less than a block from the historic Middlesex Courthouse. Museum officials invite the public to visit this Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or any time by request by calling 758-3663.

Seventy-five years ago this month, the Middlesex County Museum began with one woman and an idea!

Mrs. May Rowe (Edward W.) Chappell of Urbanna presented the idea in 1933 to the Middlesex County Woman’s Club, which organized a museum committee with Mrs. Chappell as chairman of the community project. Committee reports and news articles are preserved in scrapbooks now at the museum.

The Middlesex Board of Supervisors lent their support in providing a room in the old clerk’s office and the community at large loaned items for display. Here are Mrs. Chappells’ remarks from an address given in 1939:

“The first idea for the Middlesex County Museum came to me, I think, when I was antiquing one day and found a part of an old fashion gig up in the attic of an old home. The lady who was selling her furniture insisted upon giving it to me because she said she knew I would take care of it. What on earth would I do with it, I thought; but could not hurt the dear old lady’s feelings. And then it was I began to realize that a county as old as Middlesex with so many descendants of the original families still living must have a store of old treasures and heirlooms.”

Mrs. Chappell continued, “Dr. Berkley’s book, ‘The Small Community Museum,’ which he afterwards presented to the museum, gave me further inspiration. Why couldn’t the Woman’s Club have a place where county people could safely exhibit their valuables and relics?”

Mrs. Chappell was the chairman of the museum committee formed by the Woman’s Club. She went on to say: “With its steel door and ceilings, making it burglar and fireproof, the old clerk’s office was an ideal place. The board of supervisors has shown their interest in every possible way. Thus the first county museum in Virginia was born. We did not have the money to pay a custodian, and voluntary ones seldom prove satisfactory. At the time we seemed up against it, but we would not give up. We would find a way.”

Federal money was available for jobs and arts projects under the F.E.R.A. and the W.P.A. of Virginia. These funds helped with the renovations such as providing a door, painting, and building cabinets. It also funded the custodians, Mrs. Maude Jamison, and Mrs. Annie May Booker, who gathered items for display and managed the museum. The museum opened September 17, 1935.

“Our ambition is to broaden and enlarge our museum so visitors, children especially, can relive the glamorous past and recapture something of that warmth of good living and graciousness among our ancestors,” said Mrs. Chappell. (In 1938, there were approximately 2,000 visitors.)

An August 9, 1935 Southside Sentinel editorial noted, “There is always a certain degree of honor and distinction in being the first to invent or the first to establish something worthwhile, and the members of the Middlesex Woman’s Club are justly proud of their museum, which is established in one of the rooms of the old clerk’s office at Saluda, and while their quarters are not so spacious as they might be, they will answer nicely for a beginning.”

The article went on to reprint the editorial of Dr. Douglas S. Freeman that was published in the Richmond News Leader. Dr. Freeman praised the efforts of the Woman’s Club as an example for other clubs in rural Virginia, and for the counties of Henrico, Hanover, and Chesterfield to take note. “Middlesex long will have the first county museum in Virginia—and a very creditable one.”

The museum thrived with various exhibits of art works and artifacts until March of 1942. The war effort required that all funds for galleries and museums be directed elsewhere and notice was received from the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration of Virginia that the funding would end. As a result, the museum closed.

Mrs. Jessie DeBusk, historian of the Woman’s Club, recalls that Mr. and Mrs. Chappell lived across from the Gressitt House, next to Montagues in Urbanna. They had three children, and she was friends with their daughter, Rebecca. “Mrs. Chappell was quite a gardener and had lovely flowers in her yard. Mr. Chappell was the manager of the Coca Cola Bottling Co. The family was actively involved in Urbanna Baptist Church. Mrs. Chappell also participated in the organization of the book club of the Woman’s Club.”

Mrs. DeBusk also related that Mrs. Chappell helped to organize the Ralph Wormeley Branch of the APVA (Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities) in the late 1930s. There was an interest by the Brown Tobacco Co. to buy the Tobacco Warehouse and move it to New York. The Woman’s Club and their husbands joined to form the local APVA and the dues were $2. Their efforts kept the Tobacco Warehouse in Urbanna.

The Middlesex County Museum is indebted to the Middlesex County Woman’s Club not only for establishing the museum in 1935, but also in reviving it in 1975 as a bicentennial project in the old clerk’s office. Mrs. Louise Eubank Gray was chairman of the Museum Committee as well as co-chair of the Bicentennial Committee. The Woman’s Club members were docents for the museum.

The Board of Supervisors continued its support and the community enjoyed the reopening of the museum as part of the Flag Day Celebrations on June 14, 1975.

In the 1990s the museum reorganized with a board of directors. Mrs. Louise E. Gray was elected chairman of the board, and Gibbie Mangum was elected president.

Other charter board members were Vaughan and Ruth Noble, Mavis Mangum, Ruth Horton, Gene Ruark, Lee Weber, Pat Perkinson, Anita Healy, Melanie and Linc Marquis, Helen and Roger Hopper, Kathleen Moshier, Bill Horsley and Sherman Holmes.

The work of these members moved the museum to its permanent location in Saluda, just down the street from the courthouse.The dedication of the new museum site took place September 19, 1998.

Mrs. Chappell’s idea 75 years ago, the Middlesex County Woman’s Club, the support of the board of supervisors, and the work of many volunteers have helped over the years to support the efforts of the Middlesex County Museum to protect, preserve and present the artifacts and history of how people used to live and make a living in Middlesex County.

Museum officials invite the public to visit this Friday and Saturday, September 26-27, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. or any time by request by calling 758-3663.

posted 09.25.2008

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