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Greensboro Historical Museum

I got off to a good start in blogging about our New York-North Carolina trip last week (for instance, writing about the Duke Homestead and Nasher Museum of Art), which we visited in Durham on Tuesday), but then stopped dead. Let me try to get Ron’s View re-started here.

On Wednesday, we drove the not-quite-fifty miles from Chapel Hill west to Greensboro, with the principal goal of visiting the International Civil Rights Center & Museum. We had reserved a 1:00 PM tour and arrived early so we could explore Greensboro ahead of time. As we drove around the downtown area, we passed the stadium of the Greensboro Grasshoppers minor league baseball team, the principal downtown office buildings, and then, rounding a corner, a grouping of log-cabin buildings in a small park.

That last item caught our eye. We parked in the first available spot on the street, walked back, and on reading the sign for a nineteenth-century home, realized that this collection was part of the Greensboro Historical Museum. Indeed, we had driven past the museum moments before spotting the house. It was the large brick building just behind us, and the park contained their collection of historic buildings.

In Mary Lynn Richardson Park, see sculpture and stroll the walkways around the Francis McNairy House, originally located near today’s Guilford Courthouse National Military Park. Inside, discover furnishings and decorative arts from the late 1700s and early 1800s. Built as a log house, it now looks much as it would have in the 1820s, when the family renovated their home and added clapboard siding.

The Hockett Blacksmith and Woodworking Shops were once part of a flourishing family farm south of Greensboro. Open for scheduled tours and during special events, the buildings serve up a helping of historic crafts that were essential to and every community.

Realizing that we had stumbled on the history museum, we left the park and entered. A kindly older gentleman with a local accent gave us a museum map and oriented us a bit. There wasn’t much on the main floor. The lobby. Restrooms and offices. A century-old cadillac. We climbed the stairs, at the top of which was a display of the Metcalf-Cooke Silver Collection and an adjacent display of some clothing of Dolley Madison:

Before suffragettes and feminists revolutionized the American landscape, one local woman influenced the flavor of our nation.

Icon. Fashionista. Heroine. Guilford County native, and the only First Lady born in North Carolina, Dolley Madison is one of the area’s most celebrated native daughters. Wife of our 4th president, James Madison, Dolley led a life filled with love and acclaim, but also with hardship.

Let Dolley’s personal possessions, collected with care through the years, introduce you to the part of her life marked by privilege, parties and high tea. A calling card case and pair of silk slippers will transport you into the social swirl of her time as First Lady.

Then, discover why Dolley spent her final years in near-poverty and how her possessions, first sold at auction, were later donated to the Greensboro Historical Museum.

Beyond these is a large semi-circular space three historical rooms from North Carolina homes re-created on the outer semi-circle. I’m not seeing a link to them at the museum website. Two, a living room and dining room, were from a wealthy person’s home, circa 1850. The third was an all-purpose room from a home, circa 1800. They were well done, and I imagined them to be the museum highlight. Gail had drifted off to look at the pottery in the interior of the semi-circle. It was an exhibition of Jugtown Pottery:

In the Piedmont region of North Carolina, the words “Jugtown” and “pottery” are practically synonymous. Nearly 100 years ago a couple from New York City visited the nearby community of Seagrove, North Carolina, and stepped in to save what was then a dying tradition of handmade pottery. Then, almost 50 years later, local collectors Joanne and Arthur Bluethenthal visited Seagrove’s Jugtown Pottery and, with a discerning eye, began to purchase a range of beautifully handcrafted clay pieces. The decorative and functional designs illustrate the rich artistic heritage that is a source of pride for Greensboro, the entire state and the nation.

Oh, I didn’t mention Otto Zenke’s miniature rooms, wonderful furnished rooms made by the prominent interior designer back around the 1930s. I thought we’d seen everything on the floor after the pottery, so we headed to the stairway for the top floor and the Civil War collection, only to see a doorway leading to what turns out to be the museum’s centerpiece, the exhibition Voices of a City. We spent over an hour going through it, would happily have stayed longer.

“What would a city say if it could speak?” asked the writer O. Henry. Indeed, what would Greensboro’s generations have to say about the place, its people and events? Through Voices of a City: Greensboro North Carolina, you will discover new interpretations from more than 300 years of local history.

What may seem like ordinary objects tell extraordinary stories. An ornate shell necklace traded centuries ago by one tribe to another. An illuminated German Bible essential for worship by non-English speakers. A rifle fired during a 1781 battle for independence. A desk used by a newspaper editor who decried slavery publicly yet owned slaves through marriage. A loom that wove denim for apparel worn around the world. A seat from a civil rights sit-in that changed the nation. A flight attendant’s handbook that survived the crash of United Airlines Flight 93 on September 11, 2001.

The exhibit does a great job of laying out the human history of the region, from the Native Indian life to today. The wagon route down from Philadelphia through the Piedmont area of North Carolina to Augusta, Georgia, that brought settlers from 1800 onward; the principal settler groups — Quakers, Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Germans, and of course enslaved Africans; Civil War and reconstruction; the growth of the textile industry (denim overalls, Wrangler jeans); Vick’s Vaporub (invented in Greensboro); mills.

See the photos below (and at top) from the gallery photo tour.

There was so much to see, read, and learn. What a superb local history museum!

Categories: History, Museums
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