George Washington Museum in the Heart of Dixie
I cannot tell a lie. When I first heard that the largest collection of George Washington memorabilia outside of Mount Vernon was located in Columbiana, Alabama, I scoffed mildly under my breath. Then I relegated the information to a dusty file in my mind entitled something like, "Esoteric Alabama Rainy-Day Winter Outings to be Investigated After I Complete Several Thick 19th Century Russian Novels."
And yet, this was too odd, too surprising, and after recently visiting the Smith-Harrison Museum, too good to miss. I mean, George is the closest thing to royalty we've got. The man who wouldn't be King. A reluctant Commander in Chief of the Continental army. A guy with smelly wooden dentures. What elementary kid doesn't revere the man and the myth?
Charlotte Smith Weaver, a sixth generation granddaughter of Martha Washington, lived in Shelby County. When the opportunity arose to acquire her artifacts at a sale, several town leaders, headed by Columbiana banker Karl Harrison, did just that.
"A local antique dealer heard about the sale and contacted the sellers for us," explains Smith-Harrison Museum curator, Nancy Gray. "Doctors and local businessmen then pooled their resources and purchased the materials that Mt. Vernon didn't get and donated them to the town. Mt. Vernon has stuff packed away in attics gathering dust that has not seen the light of day in years. It's almost disgraceful."
Among the coups in the Columbiana museum are Martha's prayer book and letter box, some of George's cufflinks and buttons, as well as an original landscaping sketch of Mt. Vernon in 1787. The oldest item in the museum is the 1710 handwritten will of Colonel Daniel Parke, the grandfather of Martha's first husband. The will stated that all inheritors of Parke's estate must take his name, perhaps so that his considerable estate would remain intact. At the time of her marriage to George in 1759, Martha was the wealthiest woman in the colonies, maybe shedding light on George's assertion that their love was based not on passion but on friendship.
A number of 18th and 19th century antiques fill the museum, having been handed down from the Washington family estate for generations. Examples include coin-silver utensils and a 207-piece set of Minton porcelain.
Original correspondence from the likes of James Monroe, John Adams and James Madison fill out the collection. One section is dedicated to Robert E. Lee, who married Martha's great granddaughter, Mary Custis. These letters are among the most fascinating items in the collection, as they afford the visitor a personal glimpse into the lives of history-making characters.
Tracings of the only two personal letters in existence from George to Martha (she burned the rest after his death) reveal the emotional side of George that you just don't get from the mini-series. In a letter to Martha, sent from Philadelphia on June 23, 1775, George writes "My dearest, as I am within a few minutes of leaving this city, I could not think of departing from it without dropping you a line. . ." Think about it, George dropped lines just like the rest of us.
From Birmingham, the quickest route to the Smith-Harrison Museum is probably Highway 280 south to Alabama 25 in Harpersville. Or take I-65 south to Highway 70. Once in Columbiana, the collection is housed in the Mildred B. Harrison Library, just behind the courthouse at 50 Lester Street. Open Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. For more information, call (205) 669-4545. And while you're there, poke your head inside the old courthouse museum-admission is also free, and the staff loves visitors.