For the third year, the Salem Museum is participating in the “Virginia’s Top Ten Endangered Artifact” program of the Virginia Association of Museums. Nominated this year for the increasingly popular statewide poll: a previously unknown collection of brittle documents, revealing a rare glimpse into the Roanoke Valley in the aftermath of the Civil War. And until August 23rd, anyone can take part in the online voting.
The Preston Papers is a collection of documents recently found and donated to the Salem Museum. They were collected, primarily, by Charles Isaac Preston, sheriff of Roanoke County in the 1870s, and were discovered in the attic of his house, Preston Place on West Main Street, likely the oldest residence in Salem. The papers deal both with Preston’s official duties as sheriff and with his personal business dealings, and altogether comprise a very significant collection.
“The Preston Papers may well be the most significant cache of papers found in the Roanoke Valley in decades,” said John Long, museum director and local historian. “It will take us months to go through all of the scraps of paper, but already we’ve discovered things about Salem’s past that were previously unknown.”
For instance, the little town in the mountains of Virginia once helped ocean-going vessels navigate the seven seas. The “Custer Automatic Registering Compass Corporation” manufactured maritime compasses for a few years in the 1860s. Preston was a stockholder in the short-lived company, and the stock certificates and corporate information he saved are the only evidence ever found locally of the firm’s existence.
Another example: Preston was active in a local Grange, a fraternal group, formally known as the “Patrons of Husbandry,” which tried to build unity (and hopefully build political and economic power) among farmers. Very influential in the Midwest, no Grange was known to exist in the Roanoke Valley--until now.
The Preston Papers were found in a large, dilapidated cardboard box where they had been dumped for decades and stored in the un-air-conditioned attic of the old house. Through the years, heat took a toll on the fragile documents, silverfish nibbled at the paper, and the soot from roofing shingles filtered into the box. The paper has yellowed, ink has faded, and in some cases the acidic ink has eaten through the paper.
“These documents are very much endangered,” said Long. “They need basic conservation in addition to cataloging and evaluation of their historical significance. But the first step is raising awareness, and the Top 10 program will help do that.” Long estimates that it will take months, perhaps years, of work to fully analyze and conserve the hundreds of documents, which range from large ledgers to small scraps of torn notepaper.
Here is a sampling of some of the other items found in this collection--some will be on display in the Museum lobby for the duration of the voting, with a computer station set up for visitors to vote immediately:
• local business license rosters and tax lists, including some seemingly naming every African-American male in the county just after the Civil War
• ads for such local things as the Lord Botetourt Apple (an extinct variety once grown here), the Barnett House Hotel on Main Street, and a traveling comedy which appeared in Roanoke in 1891
• an 1865 contract between Preston and a man assumed to be a former slave, hired to work now as a freeman
• timetables for the Norfolk and Western Railroad and the local streetcar lines.
• literature for the Populist Party (a political movement which grew out of the granges) in Virginia in 1893.
“Suffice it to say that we suddenly know much more about our Valley in the 1870s and 80s than ever before,” noted Long.
The “Endangered Artifact” campaign is a program of the Virginia Association of Museums (VAM). VAM is the resource network of the Virginia and Washington DC museum community, providing education, technical assistance, and advocacy. The program is designed to create awareness of the importance of preserving artifacts in care at museums, libraries and archives throughout the Commonwealth and in the District of Columbia.
This is the third year the Salem Museum has nominated an artifact. Previously, a set of records of an African American midwife from Salem and a ship’s flag from the D-Day landings were nominated. “We’re very enthusiastic about the Top Ten program,” said Long. “Our first year we had a great response to the midwife records--we even had visits from people who had been delivered by this much-loved midwife. Then with the ship’s flag we made contact--and got donations--from people across the country who had a connection to the ship in question.”
Supporters can see the Salem Museum nomination-- and nearly three dozen other nominated items--and vote by visiting www.vatop10artifacts.org from August 4th – August 23rd. A short Youtube video introducing viewers to the Preston Papers can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WCwJJjXDFyE (or go to Youtube and search “Preston Papers”).
Nominations will be reviewed by an independent panel of collections and conservation experts, and Top 10 designees, as well as “People’s Choice” designees, will be announced in September. The public voting will be one consideration used by the panel as they make their final selections.
The Salem Museum is located at 801 East Main Street in Salem, and is open Tuesday to Friday from 10 to 4, and Saturday from 10 to 3. No admission is charged for the Museum galleries.
Submitted by the Salem Museum