Now and Then ...
(Revised from Feb. 7, 1996)
I am a Things Person. I like things, almost anything, especially if it has a little age on it or has some historical or cultural significance. In the 1990s, volunteering in acquisitions at the Chattanooga Regional History Museum, I became more and more devoted to the preservation of “things,” not that I really needed any convincing. The purpose of the next two columns—which I will develop more clearly in the second one—is to encourage any readers to safe-guard and authenticate their “things” of special interest, for natural deterioration and wholesale calamity are painfully destructive forces.
My earliest memory of wantonly breaking one of the Twelve Commandments and wholeheartedly coveting a “thing” was in the fifth or sixth grade when Neil Higgins brought to school a Revolutionary War recruitment broadside that had been in the Higgins family since the 18th century. That was, I think, the exact moment when I began to develop a concept of history. I still remember how rough the paper was and my personal light-headedness at being able to touch something that had played a part in George Washington’s time. In the summer of 1960 I was a National Trust Fellow at Colonial Williamsburg with easy access to its entire historical store, but nothing there ever had the electrical effect that the Higgins document had had on young me. In 1996 when I originally wrote this article, I was unable to learn what had happened to this piece of history.
With Valentine’s Day coming up, I am reminded of a very special locally interesting valentine I once held in my hands. In the 1950s, editing John Coffee Williamson’s diary written mainly in Benton in the mid-years of the 19th century, I got a great deal of help and encouragement from Maggie Williamson, the granddaughter of the diarist. (Not incidentally, her father, the diarist’s son, was the builder Williamson whose work was featured in last week’s POLK COUNTY NEWS.)
She managed to have some new historical tidbit for me every time I went to see her, but I was never more surprised and pleased than the day she pulled out the actual valentine that John Coffee Williamson almost a hundred years earlier had recorded sending to his future wife, Sue Bible. Perfectly preserved, it was a beautiful Victorian artifact in its own right, but signed and dated, to me, it was an historical find. Sad to tell, however, it and many other historical things were lost forever when the Williamson house and all of its contents burned in the spring of 1954.
Another story originating in my research on the Williamson diary relates to the Civil War scrip of Polk County. In Cleveland, the elderly Stuart Sisters, granddaughters of John Quincy Adams Lewis, who had a hotel in Benton in the 1850s, introduced me to something I had not previously seen when, after answering all my questions as best they could, they presented me with some Polk County scrip from their grandfather’s papers.
Believing as I do that “things” need to be seen to be appreciated, I framed these pieces of history with their quaint little chugging trains and enjoyed seeing them on the wall of my parents’ front hall until I eventually gave them and several other items to Roy Lillard for the historical society archives (More historically oriented “things” next week).
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