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Lions and Tigers and Bears – oh, my!

 

Dr. Figgat and Telegraph Office Building, Christiansburg, Va., 1903 (D. D. Lester Collection)

A poster in a shop window is captured in a glass plate negative from the museum’s collection. It is a simple building, which stood on East Main Street, across the street from the present-day Police Department building. The building housed the office of Dr. William Figgat and the telegraph office. The poster itself allows us to date the photograph because it advertises Wallace’s Show coming to Christiansburg on Saturday, October 3. A check of historic calendars at www.timeanddate.com shows that October 3 fell on a Saturday in the year 1903.

            Even more interesting is the show itself. The poster touts “Wallace Show with Herr Becker’s Troupe of Performing Animals.” Benjamin Wallace, a livery stable owner from Peru, Indiana created the show in 1884. He purchased the Carl Hagenbeck Circus in 1907 to form the Hagenbeck-Wallace show; it became the second largest circus in the country at its peak.

Historian Rodney A. Huey, Ph.D , writes in “An Abbreviated History of The Circus in America” that the 1900-1920 period was the golden age of the American circus with nearly 100 circuses traveling in the United States by 1903. According to Huey, the circus was “indelibly fixed in everyday life” even changing our vocabulary to include phrases such as “hold your horses” (a warning to local horsemen when the circus elephants paraded through town) and “get the show on the road” (a directive shouted at roustabouts to break down the show and move to the next town).

Onlookers view an act from Wallace Show on the town square in Christiansburg, Oct. 11, 1904. (D. D. Lester Collection)

Wallace Show parade in town square, Christiansburg, Va., Oct. 11, 1904. (D. D. Lester Collection)

            Circus show days were local holidays, when stores and schools closed and everyone came to town to witness the spectacle. That this happened in Christiansburg is vouched for by Arthur Sullivan in a letter to his sister on July 25th, 1869. His letter, a part of the museum’s collection reads: “we had a big Show and to tell the truth about it nearly everybody in town went to see the animals and did not get away until the Circus broke up.” The excitement surrounding the circus was still strong in 1904, when two additional glass plate negatives record another visit by Wallace’s Show, this time on October 11 – 13. Crowds line the streets in the photographs watching the show’s wagon parade. In another image, a circle of viewers surround an act, obscuring it from the camera.

Wallace Shows Poster (courtesy Wikipedia Commons)

            All of the photographs in the museum’s extensive collection record a single moment in time, but by looking at them closely we can link them together, hopefully with written documents, to understand more about everyday life during our history.

By: Sherry Joines Wyatt, Curator

Sources:www.circusfederation.org/uploads/circus_culture/about/america-huey.pdf
Wikipedia
Wikipedia Commons

 

A Little Book and a Lot of History

The interesting thing about history is how it can lead a researcher in unanticipated directions. This small handmade booklet, with a heavy decorative paper cover and tied with silk ribbon, is a good example. Described in the museum catalog as “handmade library register” a closer look reveals a richer story beginning with the following inscription “Books issued out of the lybrary [sic], Emeline A. Miller’s class.” The register contains a list of female names and an accounting of books (identified by a number) checked out on certain dates. Where was the library? Who were these people?

Emeline Miller Craig (1813-1892) in circa 1890. (Montgomery Museum Collection, gift of Archer Lackey family.      

Emeline A. Miller (1813 – ), the daughter of Dr. Joseph and Matilda Miller of Christiansburg was the niece of the folk artist Lewis Miller. She became the wife of John Craig in 1835. Craig inherited the large Hans Meadow estate in Christiansburg after the death of his father, Captain James Craig, in 1834. The museum received the booklet as part of a gift from the Sherwood Flagg estate in 1988, Miss Flagg was the last descendant of the Craig family to own Hans Meadow. 

The booklet begins in June 1833 and goes through June 1835; weekly dates for each month are recorded as days when books were taken out. An online historic calendar tells us that these were all Sundays. Emeline Miller joined the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church in 1832; her future husband was also a member. .A picture is now forming of Miss Emeline Miller, prior to her marriage, teaching a Sunday School class in Christiansburg for girls. Several of these girls have been identified.

Frances A. S. Douthat was born in 1821 (making her age 12 in 1833). She was the daughter of Robert and Mary Douthat who lived in a log house in the 100 Block of West Main St., Christiansburg. She married Daniel W. Akers in 1839.

Mary A. Wade was born around 1821 to William and Emily (Milly) Wade. William Wade joined the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church in 1831 and was a ruling elder for 25 years. Mary A. Wade married James Barnet in 1839.

Ann Bowyer was likely the daughter, born around 1821, of Thomas Bowyer and Nancy Craig Bowyer. Nancy was the daughter of Captain James and Ann Craig. Ann Craig was a founding member of the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church.

Emeline Snider may have been the daughter of John and Lucy Snider, born about 1824. John Snider was a hatter in Christiansburg.

Handmade booklet containing books checked out by girls in Christiansburg Presbyterian Sunday School, 1833-1836. (Montgomery Museum Collection. Gift of Archer Lackey Family.

Further research into the history of Christiansburg Presbyterian Church reveals that the fledgling church had been without a pastor for about three years when Rev. J. H. Wallace answered the call in 1832. It may not be a coincidence that Miss Miller’s Sunday School came about during this period of reinvigoration. The Sunday School seems to have ended shortly before Miss Miller’s marriage to John Craig on August 31, 1835.

From a humble little book we have learned so much about the early life in Christiansburg Presbyterian Church. It is these stories that give meaning to the mission of the museum to preserve these objects.

By: Sherry Joines Wyatt, Curator

Sources:
Christiansburg, Virginia by Roy Kanode
www.timeanddate.com
www.familysearch.org

Photographs Give a View into the Past

The museum owns a large number of photographs. While many are identified, there are hundreds more of people and places whose names have been lost to time. Are these photos of any value? In most cases, the answer is “yes!” Let’s look at one of the museum’s “mystery photos” and see what we might be able to learn.

This image is part of the large Craig Family Collection that came to the museum in 1988 from the estate of Miss Sherwood Flagg; the last of the Craig family to own Hans Meadow. It is a “cartes de viste” photograph, meaning that it is a thin paper photograph (sepia tone) mounted on 2 ½” x 4” cardboard. Cartes de viste were very popular from the 1860s into the 1870s, when they began to be supplanted by “cabinet cards” which measured 4 ½” x 6 ½”.

The photograph shows an Asian woman carrying a young girl on her back. The cardboard mat is embossed with English and Asian characters and carries a lily design on the reverse making it similar to the later cabinet cards, which often carried ornamental logos. The image is dated and is partially identified: “For Wm. Sydner 2. J.1. Flagg from his friend, Kinar [?] George, June 29 ’94, age 13 mos.” The date is probably 1894; the meaning of the superscript numbers is unknown. We know the William C. Flagg, Jr. family owned and resided at Hans Meadow, but this name does match any of those known. We also do not know who George was. The interaction of East and West during the late-nineteenth century is well-known however. For example, Christiansburg native Rev. William M. Junkin traveled to Korea as a missionary in 1892 remaining there until his death in 1908. Is this photograph related to Junkin in some way? Or is this yet another example of an American missionary working in Asia? It would be easy to think that the woman and child were merely posing for tourist souvenirs, but the girl’s age is given suggesting that she was part of George’s family. The child also seems to be wearing Western-style clothes. Was the woman a servant? We may never understand the story this photograph is showing, but our ideas about local communication with far-away places during this historic period are significantly expanded when we look at this photo.

A Story of Emancipation in Christiansburg

Slaveholding was widespread in Montgomery County.  By 1840, enslaved persons made up twenty percent of the population.  In Christiansburg, enslaved persons resided in half of the town’s households. Yet, not everyone was satisfied with the institution of slavery. Among those locally who wanted something different was Dorthea Bratton, the daughter of a prominent Staunton physician and statesman, Col. William Fleming and the widow of Captain James Bratton. Mrs. Bratton became convinced that the plan of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which was founded in 1816 to help freed black people immigrate to Liberia in West Africa, was the best choice for the slaves under her ownership.

In August of 1847, Nicholas Chevalier, the pastor of the Christiansburg Presbyterian Church and principal of both the Montgomery Male and Montgomery Female Academies, wrote a letter to the secretary of the American Colonization Society (ACS) on behalf to Dorothea Bratton, who wanted to free twenty of her enslaved persons and send them to Liberia. Chevalier said that Mrs. Bratton, then 70 years of age, was financially unable to pay their passages and supplies. Concerns about the project from Mrs. Bratton, the potential emigrants, and the opposition from her son-in-law, Dr. Hugh Kent, warranted the assistance of ACS. Reverend Chevalier wrote that this was “exactly one of the cases contemplated by the ACS founders & those who contribute to its funds.”  

Chevalier’s personal feelings about slavery may have been complex. He was born in Connecticut, a non-slave holding state, and professed to the ACS secretary that he was a life member of the society. Yet, census records show that he held three enslaved persons (a young woman and two children) in 1850 and four enslaved persons in 1860 (a young woman and three children).  However, Chevalier’s wife, Bethany Stuart, was a Southerner with strong ties to slave-holding. She was the sister of Confederate General J.E.B Stuart and her father, Archibald Stuart held many slaves on his Patrick County plantation.

After a legal battle, Mrs. Bratton was able to emancipate two families as well as four children without their parents. On December 22, 1847, this party left Christiansburg for Baltimore accompanied by an ACS agent. On February 5, 1848, they sailed for Liberia aboard the Amazon arriving in Monrovia, Liberia on March 14, 1848. Two of the Bratton members died shortly after arriving, probably from malaria. Like so many other black immigrants to Liberia, the party was plagued by sickness and other troubles during the early part of their settlement, but there is some evidence that by September 1848, they were sending more favorable reports of their situation.

Photograph of Dorothea Bratton’s Grave Stone Courtesy of FindAGrave.com

Despite the difficulties both to herself and her first group of emigrants, Dorothea Bratton undertook to send a second group of twelve emigrants to Liberia in July 1848, but in the end only four made the journey. In 1850, the census found Dorothea Bratton with only a ten-year-old free black named James Brown in her household. Mrs. Bratton died August 6, 1852 and is buried in Kyle Cemetery in Christiansburg, Virginia.

An Untold Story of Troubled Times

How do we learn about the past? So often the items that are passed down to us are random and incomplete – chance often has a role to play.  That is what happened in 2014 when Jim Page found a packet of letters concerning the Mary Snider Sullivan family of Christiansburg in his father’s papers. Though the Sullivans had no relationship to the Page family, the letters survived and were donated to the Montgomery Museum. These letters have an important story to tell.

Letter to Lake Sullivan from her mother, Mary Snider Sullivan, 1869.
(Montgomery Museum Collection)

Two of the letters give a window into the Reconstruction era between April 1865 and 1870 when Virginia was readmitted to the Union. The first letter was written by Mary Sullivan on June 9, 1869 to her daughter, Lake, a teacher in Tennessee. Buried in Mrs. Sullivan’s rambling, gossipy letter is an account of an inflammatory re-election speech made by then-Governor Henry H. Wells, a Union general who was appointed as provisional military governor in 1868.

                    . . . Governor [Wells] spoke here about ten days ago you never heard of anything that could equal the advice
                    he gave the negroes. . . He told them to let the plow rot in the furrow . . . the grain rot in the field rather than
                    be kept from the poles [polls] and if needs be whet there [their] daggers and use them . . .

Mrs. Sullivan goes on to say that in the evening, there was nearly a “row” after Rice D. Montague was struck by a black man. In response, “white men and boys flew to his rescue with clubs and anything they could get in their hands and made the negroes fly. . .”

Without the benefit of a second eye-witness account for this event, we must remember that Mrs. Sullivan’s own attitudes may have affected her descriptions. History adds only that Rice D. Montague was highly respected among the local white community and served as Montgomery County Clerk of Court between 1831 and 1858. A former slave owner, he held 28 slaves in 1860.

The story of a community bristling with racial tension is continued in a second letter on July 25, 1869 to Lake from her brother Arthur O. Sullivan, who was a wounded Confederate veteran. Like his mother, he informs his sister of local happenings, but he also discusses the tense racial and political atmosphere reporting that “I have not been able to find a white man that voted for Wells – he will say that he did not.” Governor Wells was soundly defeated by his opponent, Gilbert Walker, in the July 6, 1869 election. Of even greater interest is Arthur Sullivan’s mention that the runner-up in the political race for the Montgomery County representative to the Virginia Legislature was a widely respected Montgomery County African American blacksmith, Minnis Headen. Dr. Dan Thorp found, in the research for his book Facing Freedom, that this letter is the only known evidence that Headen was the first Montgomery County African American to run for office.

How easily these stories could have been lost! The preservation of these letters by the Page family has added to our understanding of the past and serves as a reminder of what you can do by thinking of the museum as a repository for historic things.

Learn more about the history of Montgomery County African Americans in Facing Freedom, now on sale in the museum book shop.

Sources:

Roy Kanode, Christiansburg, Virginia

Dan Thorp, Facing Freedom

Familysearch.org