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Thursday, August 15, 2013
Let’s face it: The world is full of conundrums and intractable problems for which we’ll never have any answers on this side. So it’s nice occasionally to come across a little mystery that can be readily solved. I doubt you’ve ever thought about this subject, but let’s digress from the weightier matters of the news and consider a question of history. Where did we get the name Glenvar?
Glenvar, of course, is the picturesque section of west Roanoke County along U.S. 460, boasting numerous businesses, a new library and, of course, three schools. If you Google the name, you’ll discover, after wading through a ton of pages about the high school, that there is a tiny village in County Donegal, Ireland, by that name.
Yet for more than a century, there has been no clear-cut explanation of exactly how the name Glenvar came to be attached to that corner of our valley. A 1940 history of the Roanoke area stated definitively that one Frank Harman, a farmer and businessman in the area, named the community. Then about 25 years ago, a local librarian recorded her understanding of the name Glenvar. Harman, she said, had moved to the area in 1891 with a daughter, Mary Glenvar Harmon, who was often seen near the little railroad depot there. The neighborhood, where her family operated a store and a cannery, was named in her honor. The librarian did not identify the source of her information, but we can be sure she believed it to be accurate and had no intention of clouding the historical record.
Does this Harman Theory (published in several sources and even recounted in Glenvar’s Community Plan in 2011) hold water? Recently, while looking for something else, I ran down a rabbit trail to see how much I could confirm or disprove, and found some relevant data.
Did Mary Harman’s presence around the railroad depot inspire the name? First, I might note that records indicate that Mary Harman was born in either 1883 or 1884, and so would have been only 8 or 9 years old in 1891. Is it likely that an 8-year-old was so frequently found at the depot, and was so prominently known, that an entire community would be named in her honor — using her middle name, no less? Seems implausible.
But there is a more important reason to discount the Harman Theory: Mary Harman’s middle name was not, in fact, Glenvar. When I dug into her history, I found that birth and marriage records indicate her middle name to be Floyd, not Glenvar (she was born in Floyd County).
So we can cast aside the traditional Harman Theory pretty easily. But that begs the question: Where did the name originate then? Another chance discovery may also provide some answers.
Not long ago, I ran across a brief mention in the Salem Times-Register of April 11, 1890, describing the sale of “Major [Robert] Martin’s fine farm west of Salem” to a group of investors, headed by A.H. Plecker (known locally as Salem’s first photographer) and A.W. Butler of Lynchburg. It was a bargain by modern standards: $23,000. But most relevant to our subject, the paper reported that the name of the farm was none other than . . . Glenvar.
The name, then, was demonstrably in use a year before the Harmans came to town. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that Martin named the farm Glenvar in 1884, when he purchased the land. Whether the Martins had some connection to the village in County Donegal is unknown. The fine home he owned still stands, a familiar West County landmark better known today as Pleasant Grove or the Deyerle House.
Interestingly, the group of investors sold Glenvar a year later to none other than Franklin P. Harman, and the name presumably came with the farm. Harman soon opened his store and cannery nearby and gave them the name Glenvar, which name he certainly took from the farm he’d just purchased. Later, a post office and railroad depot assumed the name Glenvar as well, and a community identity was born.
Now, some (most?) of you are saying “Huh! But who cares?” I agree, this is not an earthshaking discovery that changes your life in any sense. But the historical record is worth getting right, because as the truth becomes submerged, legend and best guesses can become accepted fact. Digging up a better explanation of something and correcting the record is worth the effort — and fun.
Long is a Roanoke Times columnist and director of the Salem Museum.
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