NEWS- 'Ordinary' reborn: New Nelson museum goes beyond John-Boy

The brouhaha at the Walton's Mountain Museum four years ago has brought forth a new museum– and raised the question: Can tiny Nelson County support two museums?

"Oakland– the Nelson County Museum of History" (that's the official name at this point) is well under way and will highlight the county's history, not a popular television show. It plans to open by August 2007 with a Hurricane Camille exhibit.

The Waltons creator Earl Hamner's split with the Walton's Mountain Museum in Schuyler set in motion the events that led to the new historical museum. And Lynchburg College communications dean Woody Greenberg was instrumental in founding both.

In the early 1990s, Greenberg pushed for the Walton's Mountain Museum as a way to save the Schuyler school right across the street from the house where Earl Hamner grew up. The museum opened in 1992 and became a mecca for Waltons fans.

Ten years later, trouble brewed when the museum board booted Earl Hamner's brother, Jim, from the board of directors.

Feeling that his brother, the model for the "Jim-Bob" character in the TV series, had been mistreated, Hamner withdrew his support for the Schuyler museum in 2002, and had Greenberg remove his Waltons scripts, awards and papers from the museum, a rift that split the small community into bitter factions.

Initially, Greenberg considered housing the Hamner memorabilia on the property of the Lovingston Elementary School, now the Nelson Center. He envisioned a museum of rural history with a farmhouse like the one from the television series– but did not plan to go head to head with the Schuyler museum.

Flash forward four years. Greenberg still would like to see a farmhouse as part of the new museum's amenities, but it will not be Waltons-centric.

"We're not trying to compete with the Walton's Museum, and this is not about The Waltons," says Greenberg.

About three years ago, a group planning the new historical museum hooked up with the Nelson Historical Society. "They'd always wanted a place," says Greenberg.

Better yet, they had the cash to put down on Oakland, the 10-acre historic property on U.S. 29 about four miles south of Lovington, when it went on the market for $275,000.

The historical society owns the property, and the museum board will raise money– around $500,000 so far– to develop it. "We're within $70,000 of paying off the $275,000," Greenberg says.

Oakland features an 1838 tavern that served as the "ordinary" to 19th-century travelers. The museum is shoring up the tavern, has hired an architectural firm to develop a master site plan, which may include moving the driveway and adding a deceleration lane along 29 before the official opening day next year. 

That would coincide with the 400th anniversary of Jamestown and the 200th anniversary of Nelson, which split from Amherst County in 1807.

Plans call for an oral history center, and the inaugural Hurricane Camille exhibit will contain accounts of those who were there. Ditto an upcoming Rural Electrification Act exhibit.

Greenberg also foresees a visitor center and an exhibit hall. The Historical Society will also move its archives to the musuem.

As for the fate of Hamner's papers? That's yet to be determined, says Greenberg. Currently they're stored at Lynchburg College.

"Earl is not pushing us to celebrate him," says Greenberg.

Hamner, reached by telephone at his home in Studio City, California, concurs. "I have entrusted all my papers, awards, and scripts to Woody," says Hamner. "Whatever he decides to do, I leave to his discretion." 

Hamner supports the focus on Nelson County history rather than on one screenwriter's life. "My ego has already been satisfied and constantly caressed over the years," says Hamner.

And he's been busy promoting his newest book, Generous Women: An Appreciation, which recognizes influential women in his life, such as his mother, Doris Giannini Hamner, Eleanor Roosevelt, and actress Michael Learned, who played his mother on The Waltons. Hamner plans to be back in the area for the 2007 Virginia Festival of the Book.

Museum board president Beth Goodwin's family has been in Nelson since 1795. As a member of the Historical Society, she was aware that group had been collecting money for years in anticipation of acquiring property for historical purposes.

The shake-up at the Walton's Mountain Museum, she admits, created some hesitation about getting involved with the new museum. "The Historical Society at first didn't want to do anything with it because of the controversy," she says. "That was my personal purpose in joining the museum– to see that it not focus on one particular subject." Or person.

Goodwin wants to show hardscrabble rural life in Nelson County, such as the devastating 1969 Hurricane Camille, which killed one percent of the County's population– "How we pulled ourselves up from the flood," she says, "and pulled ourselves up by the bootstraps." 

Walton's Mountain Museum director Bea Taylor says over 1,000 visitors just celebrated the museum's 14th anniversary, and it's getting 20,000 visitors a year. Any concerns the new museum will cut into that?

"None whatsoever," replies Taylor. Nor is she worried about the fan base dying for a television show that aired its last new episodes in 1981. "Over 20,000 people come a year, so not anytime soon," says Taylor.

Initially, after the falling out with Hamner, the Waltons museum feared direct competition from the new venture until the two groups met. "They became cognizant of the fact we weren't going to be focusing on The Waltons or Earl," says Goodwin.

Now they're talking cross promotion, and she doesn't rule out a future exhibit about Hamner. But more pressing: a December 10 open house at the newly refurbished tavern.

This "ordinary" will become the latest Nelson County museum.


1 comment

Thanks for letting us know about this. Great article.

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