Mary Johnston, born and raised in Buchanan, wrote a bestselling novel that would be adapted twice into movies. The daughter of a Confederate artillery officer, she spent the early years of the 20th century putting her lucrative writing career at risk by campaigning for women’s rights.
Internationally famous in her heyday but obscure today, Johnston is one of many figures, anecdotes and artifacts from Botetourt County history brought into new light through a massive exhibition recently opened by the Historical Society of Western Virginia.
“Botetourt County: 250 +1 Years of Delight” is the largest exhibition to debut since the historical society’s two museums, the History Museum of Western Virginia and the O. Winston Link Museum, were combined in 2017. Originally the show was meant to coincide with Botetourt County’s 250th anniversary celebration in 2020, but after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down those plans, the museum staff went ahead on their own.
Created in partnership with Bank of Botetourt, the exhibition spans from the mid-18th century, the era of the county’s namesake, to the present day. The fourth Baron Botetourt, Norborne Berkeley, was the royal governor of the Colony of Virginia from 1768 to 1770, and the county name honors his memory. The exhibition includes a replica of a portrait of Lord Botetourt that hangs in his family home in England, said Historical Society curator Ashley Webb.
The show holds a section that Webb described as an ode to early 19th century American explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. “When you think of Lewis and Clark, you don’t really think of Botetourt, but William Clark’s wife was a Fincastle native.”
Julia Hancock married Clark when she was 16 and he was 37. The story goes that Clark first met Julia while passing through Botetourt prior to starting his famous expedition and he asked for her hand in marriage when he returned three years later. They had five children before her death at age 28, after which Clark married her first cousin, Harriet Radford.
The historical society exhibition includes replicas of Julia Hancock Clark’s jewelry.
Other items include architectural pieces from a log cabin built in 1802 and a tall stack of cans decorated with labels that tie into Botetourt history, recreated using the archives of the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum in Ferrum. Webb said that not only was Botetourt a huge canning area, but “the labels themselves are works of art.”
The show also includes a gallery devoted to recent and contemporary Botetourt artists, and displays of hand-crafted furniture, kitchenware, textile blankets and embroidery.
“We’ve got chairs, lots and lots of chairs all made in Botetourt from different makers or brought into Botetourt. There’s a few Baltimore chairs,” Webb said.
There are also several Botetourt-made antique rifles. “They are absolutely fantastic because they have so much to the level of detail on them,” Webb said.
Though the Botetourt show takes up galleries on two floors, and some space on the stairway that links them, “it’s really just the surface of what’s still out there,” Webb said. “There’s still so much to be uncovered and researched.”
As just one example, the show features three paintings of Botetourt landscapes by Irish immigrant Michael O’Connor, who had settled in Buchanan with his wife in 1870. “He’s a just an untrained folk artist,” Webb said. “This stuff is really beautiful in terms of detail.”
O’Connor is known to have painted four such scenes, but the whereabouts of the fourth painting are, for now, a mystery. Webb said that the museum is hopeful that someone will come forward and say, “I own that!”
In a bit of synchronicity, Lynsey Allie, museum manager for the Historical Society of Western Virginia, was hired in April as the Botetourt County Historical Society & Museum’s new executive director, a part-time position. Even before that announcement, Allie was working with both historical societies.
The Botetourt historical society was happy that the Roanoke-based nonprofit went forward with “Botetourt County: 250 +1 Years of Delight,” Allie said, as the combined museums in Roanoke have more space than the Botetourt museum, nestled at 3 W. Main St. beside the county courthouse in Fincastle.
The Botetourt museum is open to visitors, with a new exhibition, “From Calomel to COVID: Healthcare in Botetourt County,” open through June 30. Hours are Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Admission is free. For more information call 473-8394 or visit https://bothistsoc.wordpress.com/.