Can't get enough of The Waltons? New museum in works

At the turn of the last century, soapstone and titanium were goldmines for Nelson County. Today, it's a television show, The Waltons, and even 30 years after the series debuted, locals continue to mine its popularity with a second museum based on the works of its most famous native son, Earl Hamner Jr.

For a decade, the Walton's Mountain Museum in Schuyler, Hamner's hometown, has been the tiny town's major tourist attraction and has drawn legions of loyal fans from all over America.

Ten years later, things aren't quite so rosy on Walton's Mountain. A bitter shake-up on the museum's board has caused Hamner to withdraw his support and his personal property– from the museum, and plans are under way for a rival Waltons-inspired museum. Now Nelson County will find out whether the tourism demand is there for two museums and one country store devoted to The Waltons.

Hamner, 79, turned his experiences growing up in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the Depression into the most beloved television series of the '70s.

The show first spawned the Walton's Mountain Country Store, which opened in 1982 and still lures unsuspecting passersby who see its sign on U.S. 29 and think that it's The Waltons museum.

Next came the official, Earl Hamner-sanctioned Walton's Mountain Museum, which opened for business in 1992 in the old Schuyler school across the street from the house in which Hamner and his seven siblings grew up.

And from the first, there was trouble.

"One of the problems with the Walton's Mountain Museum," says Hamner in phone call from Studio City, California, "is that I never expected conflict. And over the years, I've been embarrassed by the number of conflicts that have made me seem argumentative and thin-skinned. I'm not."

The latest imbroglio came when Hamner's brother Jim was fired as treasurer of the museum because he wrote a letter of recommendation on museum stationery for an old family friend who was about to be sentenced for embezzling $5,000. The same woman has been accused of forging checks totaling $627.50 on the museum's account.

Jim Hamner's character was known as Jim Bob on The Waltons. After Jim's ouster from the museum, Earl Hamner withdrew his support from the organization and asked his old friend, Woody Greenberg, who dreamed up the original museum, to start looking for a new home for the memorabilia he'd contributed to his hometown project.

Greenberg, dean of communications and the arts at Lynchburg College, recently unveiled plans for the new museum. It's eight acres on U.S. 29, behind the former Lovingston Elementary School. The old school building is undergoing a $2 million transformation into the Nelson Center, which will house elderly day care and recreational programs.

On the open land, Greenberg plans to recreate the Waltons' homestead from the series, which, incidentally, does not look like the white-frame Hamner house in Schuyler. The unofficial name of the new museum is the Nelson County Museum of Rural History.

While Greenberg doesn't discount the possibility of adding the word "Walton," he insists this isn't just another Waltons knockoff.

"The real thrust would be a glimpse of rural life in Nelson County, with an emphasis on the 20th century," he explains, noting in particular the Depression and World War II eras.

With a house that looks just like the one on the television series, plus a location more accessible than the more remote Schuyler, won't the new museum draw visitors away from the Walton's Mountain Museum?

"We're not going to build something that's in direct competition with them," says Greenberg, who plans to cooperate with his allegedly non-rival museum.

"The Walton's Museum is about the show," says Greenberg. "It doesn't pay attention to its historical context."

Over at the Walton's Mountain Museum, interim director Bea Taylor [no relation to Aunt Bee Taylor, a fictitious character on The Andy Griffith Show–ed.] also dispels notions of dueling museums. "We hope it'll bring us more business," she says of the new venture.

At present, there's some uncertainty about the fate of the original museum. Two directors have left this year, the most recent having lasted not even two months. Board members are resigning in droves, and there has been talk of closing the museum and devoting the facility to a community center.

Board president Buck Whitehurst pooh-poohed that notion when he spoke with The Hook in June: "Why would we want to shut down our only income-producing business?" Nevertheless, speculation continues, fueled in no small part by the fan club's decision to hold this year's annual meeting at the Doubletree hotel instead of in Schuyler.

Can the Schuyler museum continue to exist without Hamner's blessing, the support of The Waltons fan club, and visits from series cast members? Whitehurst did not return calls from The Hook. Greenberg says if the Walton's Mountain Museum should close, he'd like to take some of the displays.

The community continues to be torn over the idea of a Waltons museum without its creator. One former museum director wrote a letter to the Nelson County Times suggesting that part of the problem was the information Earl Hamner received from various messengers. She named psychic Isis Ringrose, co-founder of the spiritual community in Schuyler called The Gathering and a Hamner loyalist who's lobbied hard to mend fences between Hamner and the Museum. Presumably one of the messengers would also include Hamner's own brother Jim.

When Ringrose and others were unable to repair the damage between the museum and the Hamners, she said, "I knew this was going to happen but then, I'm a psychic."

Greenberg was given the task of removing Hamner's property from the Schuyler museum, which include scripts, Emmys, portraits of cast members, copies of his books in 10 different translations, and his five honorary degrees.

"Someone at the museum said I was taking away my marbles," Hamner says. "Those items represent a lifetime of hard work."

Hamner doesn't mind that the new museum will encompass the history and culture of Nelson County and not focus solely on The Waltons. "It's an expanded opportunity to document some of the other work I've done," he says, mentioning scripts he wrote for the Twilight Zone with folkish themes reflecting his Nelson County background. (A new book, Twilight Zone Scripts by Earl Hamner, is due out in the spring.)

When Hamner created Falcon Crest, a popular '80s soap about a winemaking dynasty in Napa Valley, that, too, tapped into his Virginia roots. An ancestor of his named Giannini was a gardener for Jefferson. "Wine was in my blood, and I made the family Italian on the show," he says.

Although he plans to be heavily involved in the new museum, Hamner credits Greenberg with making both it and the Schuyler museum happen. "Woody bubbles with ideas," he says.

Greenberg sees a lot of Nelson County history to commemorate: Hurricane Camille in 1969, which took over 100 lives; the Piney River titanium mine and the Alberene soapstone mine in Schuyler, each of which employed about 1,000 people in the 1920s; and the African Americans and Monacan Indians who've played parts in the county's history.

He also envisions a demonstration lumberyard and a collection of old farm equipment, both of which factor into Nelson County's 20th century history.

Lynchburg College will be an invaluable resource for the nascent museum. The school has a media development center that can build multi-media displays, a center for historical culture that focuses on Central Virginia, and a museum studies program. Greenberg, as president of the Nelson County Community Development Foundation, the organization that raised $2 million to renovate the Lovingston School, has the support of that organization, and he hopes to bring the Nelson County Historical Society on board, too.

Currently Greenberg is putting together a board of directors– with Earl Hamner's approval. While he hasn't set a fundraising goal, he says it'll be more than $250,000, a modest figure in the world of museum building.

As for the museum's opening, Greenberg hopes that will be well before 2007, the 200th anniversary of the incorporation of Nelson County.

And as enthusiastic as Hamner is about the new project, he's learned one thing about dealing with museums in his home county: "I'll have my involvement spelled out legally."

He'll be back in the area October 19 to celebrate his newest book, Goodnight, John-Boy, and to raise money for the new museum, according to Greenberg.

The book details Hamner's memories of working on the The Waltons and the scenes behind the series. One chapter looks at the museum and Schuyler, and why he wanted to write a series about the people there.

The book was going to print just as his brother Jim was kicked off the museum board as treasurer, and Hamner could easily have deleted the chapter. But he didn't. "Schuyler is in my blood," he says.

He says he's overcoming his grief at the latest conflict with "people who have no love for Schuyler, no respect for me or my family, and no commitment to the museum based on my work."

Hamner says the whole affair has brought to mind a poem from The Shropshire Lad by British poet A.E. Houseman that he had to memorize his senior year in high school and that haunts him now. Over the phone from Studio City, he recites:

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again

Obviously things have changed since Hamner's idyllic childhood in Schuyler. Now the machinations of the characters involved seem to resemble Falcon Crest more the The Waltons. Or maybe, for Hamner, recent events bring to mind an episode from Twilight Zone.

As for the fates of both museums? Like any good series, to be continued...

 

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