Twenty-five years ago, some of Salem’s oldest buildings were being torn down and with them, building blocks of the city’s history. A group of history lovers turned their alarm into action, and formed SOS – Save Old Salem.
The fledgling organization didn’t own a building to call home, have a collection, had no money – but tons of enthusiasm and hope.
That grew into the Salem Historical Society and its showplace home, the Salem Museum built in 1854 as the home and store of William Brown and his wife Carrie.
With a $25,000 gift from a “secret benefactor” – the society hired a building moving company that transported the salvageable portions of the house east on Main Street to Longwood Park in 1987.
Scores of supporters literally rolled up their sleeves, sanded, nailed and painted to turn the former house and store into the Salem Museum, which opened in 1992.
Monday night, 130 history lovers, leaders and visionaries celebrated what the historical society has done in its first quarter century, and what it plans to continue doing.
The celebration the afternoon of June 19 had a sneak preview of the new exhibit that opens this Saturday, “Hometown Treasure.” Catered hors d’oeuvres and adult beverages were sponsored by Sherwood Memorial Park.
Past presidents of the Salem Historical Society and other supporters shared their own memories with each other as they looked around at the photos of the original Williams-Brown House, its journey up Main Street, and images and thoughts from past leaders.
Those started with SOS Founding President James S. Fulghum whose quote from a July 30, 1970, issue of the Salem Times-Register is the first thing visitors see when walking down the stairs to the gallery.
“Over the years I’ve seen a number of beautiful buildings in Salem torn down. Some have to go in the name of progress, but some do not,” Fulghum’s quote says.
“There are only a half-dozen buildings predating the Civil War left on Main Street…It’s obvious that once a building is destroyed, it’s just as extinct as a species and just as impossible to replace.”
Since then, the Salem Historical Society has saved the Williams-Brown House that houses the museum, the Wiley House that the society had moved to Chestnut Street to save it from demolition on Main Street next to the Salem Post Office, and now, stabilization of Preston Place on West Main Street. The house – said to be the oldest home in Salem, built in 1821 – is the home to a thriving business new to Salem, the White Oak Tea Tavern that relocated from Fincastle.
In museum’s downstairs gallery, the list of former presidents sits on a unique base – an antique embalming table from John M. Oakey and Son Funeral Home.
Years 2000, 2001 President Dave Foster remembered being involved with the Historical Society starting in 1986 when President Len Becker buttonholed him after learning Foster had a master’s degree from the Wharton School and was good with accounting. Foster ultimately was treasurer for 14 years “and the only way I could get out of being treasurer was to become president,” he said.
“We got a surprise donation of $25,000 in 1986, and that was the catalyst that made the house move possible,” he explained. “Before that we had quotes from several house movers of about $40,000. We found someone who would do it for less, and in April 1987 the Williams-Brown House began its move.”
John David Robbins, who led the group in 1995, was another early president at Monday’s gathering. He is getting ready to take the reins again in January 2018.
“Dr. Warren G. Moorman – president in 1989 – asked me to be involved, when the Historical Society was meeting at the Salem Library and churches, before we moved the Brown House,” he explained.
Robbins remembered Moorman, Ted Webber, Mark Miller and Morgan Griffith – before he became a House of Delegates member and now, a Congressman – did a lot of hands-on construction work on the Williams-Brown House, as well as builder Mark Henrickson and his late father, Roy Henrickson.
Eight years ago when the museum building was renovated and expanded – including the upstairs and downstairs galleries where Monday’s reception took place – Robbins and a committee worked with students from Virginia Tech who came up with conceptual ideas. Members of the Historical Society chose the plan people see on Main Street in Longwood Park today, Robbins said, even though he favored a look more like the Deyerle-designed house on far West Main Street. I wanted an entrance between the two houses, he said.
Robbins is proud that the Historical Society has no debt from the multi-million expansion, “and still have an endowment.” He said about $18,000 remains from renovating Preston Place.
“The purpose of the museum has changed somewhat over the years, from a history museum to more of a community center,” Robbins pointed out, “with more than just history.” He referred to recent annual art exhibits by Salem High School, Glenvar High School and Andrew Lewis Middle School students, and individual artists.
The lower level is available for future plans by the Salem Arts Council. Another effect the Historical Society has had on downtown Salem, Robbins pointed out, is research and designation of a Downtown Salem Historical District.
The resulting historic tax credits available have made possible investments in older buildings by entrepreneurs such as Ed Walker’s group to renovate West Main Street Body Shop for future downtown apartments on the second floor and commercial ventures on the street level.
Robbins emphasized that the Historical Society is working to get Preston Place on the Lewis and Clark Trail. “We restored the house and don’t have to have to have a docent to show it,” he added. Future plans call for more historical research and information to be added at Preston Place for visitors to see.
Former President John Hildebrand, who served in 1996-97, first got involved with the Historical Society “because I had an interest in history through my father. I’ve always been an amateur historian,” he said, “and after he retired as a civil engineer, he had an opportunity to do what he loved to do,” wife Tootie added.
Several times husbands and wives have each served as president, as in the case of Dave Robbins and later, his wife Frankie, and Len Savage and more recently, his widow, Ginny Savage.
“I feel like it is very important to preserve our history,” Ginny Savage said, “probably because of my husband. I love history.”
Immediate Past President Bill Piper and his wife, Vickie, got involved with preserving Salem history and more current projects after moving here. He is proud of having been able to use his career training to support the museum.
“I was responsible for finishing the installation of the museum’s computer system, for finishing the library on the top floor of the new addition, and finishing the downstairs,” explained Piper, who said he used all his project management and engineering skills.
Assistant Director Alex Burke designed the exhibit, director Fran Ferguson said. She described the current exhibit on the museum’s Facebook site: “Take a look back at the historic buildings we’ve saved, and some of the artifacts we’ve collected over the years. Some of these objects don’t get out much, like a five-foot tall Valleydale Pig mascot, an antique embalming table from Oakey’s, and military uniforms from WWII. Some of these artifacts can be touched, just please be gentle!” Gloves are available for visitors to use when turning pages of a 1922 book of Salem streets.
Dr. Peggy Shifflett is the current president. Past Presidents of the Salem Museum & Historical Society started with James H. Fulghum in 1970; Dr. W.T. Norris Jr., A.D. Hurt, Emma S. Webber, Dr. Samuel R. Crockett, Peggy Shenberger, Dorothy M. Butler, William G. Wells, Norwood C. Middleton, Lester S. Becker, Warren Moorman, P.B. Douglas, Dr. Mark Miller, John David Robbins, John Hildebrand, Lon Savage, David Foster, Bob Stauffer, Mike Maxey, Judy Goodwin, Frankie Robbins, Virginia Savage, Ray Byrd Sr., Linda Miller, Frank Chapman, M. Norma Dickerson, Willie Robertson, Lenora Downing, Fred King and Bill Piper.
In addition to Ferguson, two previous museum directors were at Monday’s celebration, Mary Crockett Hill and John Long. A photograph of the first acting director, Nikki Martin, then a recent-Roanoke College graduate, is part of the exhibit.
The current exhibit, “Hometown Treasure – 25 years of the Salem Museum” officially opens on Saturday, June 24 to the public on the lower level of the museum in Longwood Park, across from East Hill Cemetery, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, and weekdays Tuesday through Friday the same hours. Admission is free.