A treasure trove of documents – some no more than a scrap of paper – from the house that used to belong to Charles Isaac Preston – sheriff of Roanoke County in the 1870’s – were recently delivered to the Salem Museum. They were discovered in the attic of his still-standing house across from Wal-Mart on West Main Street, according to Salem Museum director John Long. “Preston House,” as it is called, is likely the oldest house in Salem adds Long, who also teaches at Roanoke College.
“The Preston Papers may well be the most significant cache of papers found in the Roanoke Valley in decades,” said Long, who expects it to “take months” to go through them all. They’ve already uncovered that Preston was a stockholder in a short-lived maritime compass manufacturing company, and he was part of a trade group that attempted to band farmers together in a union of sorts so they could wield more influence.
“It gives a great picture of what Roanoke County was like in the 1870’s,” said Long. “Hundreds and hundreds of scraps of paper…all of it very interesting.”
Some of the Preston Papers are on display at the Salem Museum now, and you can vote for them as a “Top Ten Endangered Artifact” in Vrginia, a contest sponsored by the Virginia Association of Museums. Voting takes place at the Salem Museum until August 23 and on-line at vatop10artifacts.org.
There’s no prize really said Long, but it would just put a brighter spotlight on what he calls a rare and valuable find. “The voting is only part of a consideration by a team of experts,’ said Long, “and it helps to raise awareness about your collection.”
A number of interesting items showed up in the Preston documents: local business rosters and tax lists, ads for the Barnett House Hotel on Main Street in Salem and the Lord Botetourt Apple – an extinct variety now. There’s also what appears to be a list of all African-American males in the area, compiled after the Civil War, but Long is not sure what that means.
“They were being taxed for some reason – I haven’t figured that out,” noted Long, who also called the list “a great demographic picture.” One document details an agreement Preston reached with someone assumed to be a former slave – now a freeman – after the Civil War had ended.
Its hard to “grasp the significance,” of such documents at times until you see them, and Long urges people to come out and do just that – view some of the Preston Papers (see salemmuseum.org for hours). A voting station set up at the museum makes casting a ballot easier. All told about three dozen items are up for consideration in the Top Ten voting online. There will also be a “People’s Choice” artifact chosen.
This is the third time the Salem Museum has had items in the running. Previously records from an African-American midwife and the flag from a ship that had landed at D-Day on the beaches of Normandy were nominated. Being voted as a Top Ten endangered artifact “would be really good publicity, especially for a small museum like us,” noted Long.
– Gene Marrano