The Isle of Wight Museum turns 40

Published 8:30 pm Tuesday, November 29, 2016

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Forty years passes so fast. It’s a bit hard to believe it was that long ago when a group of local history lovers opened the Isle of Wight Museum in what has been known historically as the gambling house, located next door to the Smithfield Inn.

And yet it was 1976 — not coincidentally, the nation’s 200th anniversary.

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Many of the people most responsible for founding the museum are no longer among us. They include the museum’s primary early donor, Gurley A. Barlow Jr,. and William (Billy) Yeoman. Both men’s artifact collections have done much to make the museum one of Virginia’s finest local exhibits.

The museum quickly outgrew its gambling house home and fell heir to the former Bank of Smithfield after that institution completed construction of a new home that was actually in the works when the museum initially opened.

Barlow was a collector of rural artifacts for which he had an insatiable appetite. What individually often seemed to be small, even innocuous items in his collection, when taken as a whole, formed a virtual inventory of an early 20th century country store, complete with shelving and counters. Added to those items was the post office box and window system that had been the Carrollton Post Office for decades.

The country store exhibit remains the museum’s heart and soul, and stepping into it is like taking a journey back 60 or 70 years in rural Isle of Wight and Surry counties.

But there is much more to the museum than that exhibit, vital though it is. Today, it houses some very impressive archaeological finds from colonial and pre-colonial times, as well as a Civil War exhibit that, viewed objectively, shows that the nation’s great rending was deeply questioned, even here in Smithfield.

Now through the end of the year, the museum staff is celebrating the 40th anniversary with what it calls 40 objects that collectively tell important stories about Isle of Wight’s history. They begin with a fossilized whale vertebra, a stone face found near the Blackwater River that remains a mystery to archaeologists but was almost certainly pre-colonial.

One of the longest-running mysteries in the county’s history is a 17th century figure known only as the Lawne’s Creek Potter. This craftsman, whose name will likely never be known, produced pottery used for every day living and sold it throughout the region. Shards found at various sites along the James and York River confirm that. Recently, a Lawne’s Neck residential lot owner found what is now firmly believed to be a part of the Potter’s working site, and the “40 objects” exhibits contains a fragmented pot attributed to him.

Several of the objects are associated with the county’s maritime history, which is surprisingly rich. The artifacts singled out include an olive oil jar that probably came to Virginia aboard a British ship during colonial times, as well as a Mallory Todd sales receipt. Todd is credited with founding the Smithfield Ham business by shipping hams as part of his successful shipping business.

The effective end of the maritime connection came when the James River Bridge was opened in the last 1920s. There are photographs from that period but also a pair of scissors used to open the bridge to free traffic in 1976, when tolls were taken off the span.

The artifacts also pay tribute to the county’s rich black history. Archaeological artifacts that collectively make one of the objects come from a site near Rushmere believed to have been the original free black community inhabited by former slaves freed by Timothy Tynes in 1802.

On a more somber note, two of the objects in the display are keys — and both of them for former jails. One unlocked — and locked — the brick jail on Wharf Hill that at one time serves Smithfield. The other did the same for the Isle of Wight County jail.

Collectively, the 40 objects are well worth a visit to the museum this fall. The museum does charge admission these days, as it should, but it’s $2, the price of a Coke or a cup of coffee in most restaurants these days. And it’s worth every dime.