A packed house for a lecture? Wow!

Published 4:52 pm Tuesday, July 16, 2019

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This newspaper has recorded many events, large and small, since I returned to Smithfield back in 1972, but I never thought I would witness what occurred Tuesday of last week when well over 300 people packed The Smithfield Center to hear a 74-year-old professor of anthropology talk about the demise of Virginia Indian tribes four centuries ago.

Mind you, this was not just any speaker. Helen Rountree has spend half a century studying the Powhatan Indian confederacy and its member tribes, and is quite probably the most knowledgeable individual ever to catalogue the culture, traditions, living conditions, evolution and, in all too many instances, disappearance of these native Virginians.

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She is author, co-author or editor of nearly a dozen scholarly books, and her books are not dull reading. They bring to life a woodland culture that, prior to her research, was only a shadowy prelude to what we often take to be Virginia’s history.

But back to last Tuesday. Sponsors of the lecture had set up 150 chairs, and they were filled a half-hour before the program began. Every chair in the building was then set out and those who couldn’t find a seat stood around the walls.

The packed house included people from well beyond Isle of Wight County. Dr. Rountree had apparently implied that this might be her final public lecture, and that fact alone may have spurred some of the interest in hearing her.

I like to think, however, that the turnout was also a reflection of a growing interest in the history of our part of Virginia. The lecture was specifically billed as a discussion of the fate of Indian tribes south of the James River, and indeed it was.

The history of Isle of Wight and Surry has drawn sparse interest compared with that of the north shore of the James, where the grandest of early plantations were located. These South Shore counties are steeped in our nation’s history, however, and events like last week’s help to emphasize that. For that reason, herewith is a plug for the organizers of the event.

The lecture was co-sponsored by the Isle of Wight Historical Society and the Isle of Wight County Museum. It was clearly the most successful collaboration the two organizations have undertaken.

The museum and the Historical Society play different but significantly overlapping roles.

The Museum, founded in 1976, is by definition what it’s named. It has one of the finest community museum exhibits to be found anywhere, including its hugely popular, fully furnished Country Store. But it’s not a stuffy, static display of county history. An energetic staff offers educational and enjoyable activities in an effort to attract the attention of county residents as well as visitors. Just this week, it celebrated the “birthday” of what we proclaim to be the world’s oldest ham — complete with balloons and cake.

The Historical Society tends to be more activist in its approach. That’s not intended to be a negative description. History is invariably preserved by those who are passionate about doing so. Historic St. Luke’s Church was brought back from the very brink of collapse by activists. Our colonial courthouse on Main Street was save by a group of women who simply wouldn’t accept the demolition of the building that was planned back in the 1930s.

The Historical Society uses volunteers to work on a wide range of projects including its massive effort to document little-known graveyards throughout Isle of Wight County. It’s now looking for a physical home, either old county Clerk’s Office owned by Isle of Wight or the Wombwell House, owned by the town. Either government entity would be fortunate to have the society as a future caretaker of those properties.

(The society has about 70 members and is looking for new members who have an interest in the county’s history.)

To both the museum and Historical Society, congratulations on the popularity of this program. By any measure, it was a spectacular success.