Navigate / search

It all started with a teapot

Bust of the nation’s first president greets visitors.
Bust of the nation’s first president greets visitors.

Alabama is home to 2nd largest collection of Washington memorabilia

Story and photos by Emmett Burnett

Here’s something you probably don’t know about George Washington: He was buried twice.

Our first president’s interment was in 1799 but in 1831 he was exhumed from the badly deteriorating family vault and moved to a better-constructed brick enclosure. Here’s something else you don’t know: His casket liner was cut into sections and sold as souvenir pieces. One of those pieces is in Columbiana, Alabama.

The casket remnant is part of a thousand-artifact display of America’s First Family, housed in the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington, the second largest collection of the Washington’s personal belongings outside of Mt. Vernon. And how did Shelby Country become its home?

“I’m probably asked that every time someone walks in,” smiles Donald Relyea, the museum’s curator, guide, and student of all things Washington. “Most of our advertising is word of mouth so most people have no idea what is in here or how much.” It all started with a teapot.

In the early 1980s, Shelby County resident Charlotte Smith-Weaver presented a teapot to a local appraiser for authentication. She said the small shiny vessel had been handed down through her family. Charlotte was the six generation granddaughter of Martha Washington.

The teapot was real, her story true, the appraiser amazed. And then his eyes widened when Charlotte said that she had much more of George and Martha’s things.

Local banker Karl C. Harrison heard the news. Charlotte was at a point in life where she was ready to share her family’s legacy. In the mid-1980s banker Harrison obtained her entire collection, placing it in the city’s public library.

Suddenly, the little building of books was crowded with reading rooms, children stories, and treasures from the father of our country. But in 1988 Harrison added an auctioned bonanza of more Washington wonders. The building was packed and could hold no more.

TEAPOT

“He made a large purchase of Augustin Washington’s (George’s half-brother) estate, from a Kentucky auction,” noted Relyea. “But it was too much and too delicate to safely display in the library. It just would not fit.”

In 2000, the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington was installed in the library’s new wing, custom made for a president’s legacy. It showcases items of awe, including a 207-piece set of Minton porcelain, Sevres vases, circa 1785, and an 1805 walnut games table. There are tools, pots, pans, Washington’s handwritten letter to President James Madison, the scribed ponderings of British Army officer and Washington nemesis, Charles Cornwallis, an original 18th century sketch for Mt. Vernon’s landscaping, and more – approximately 990 more. Ironically, everyone enjoys the display except its driving force. Karl C. Harrison died three years before the museum opened and never saw his namesake.

But the Shelby County banker would have loved it and so would the first president. “I think Washington would be pleased that so much of his things were saved,” said Relyea. “He was very systematic and never discarded things.”

Martha Washington’s 1783 prayer book.
Martha Washington’s 1783 prayer book.

Regarding his personal life: “Washington was a true friend but very difficult to develop a friendship with,” Relyea explained. “He held himself aloof. He analyzed people before trusting them.” He probably would have hated Facebook.

And forget what you heard about that cherry tree chopping business. “It probably never happened,” smiled the curator. “The story is part of an 1800s biography, written by Mason Weems. The author couldn’t find much information about Washington as a young man so he made it up, including the part about chopping down a cherry tree.”

The legendary presidential wooden teeth? Not a splinter of truth. “Most dentures were made of ivory and occasionally from other people’s teeth,” said Relyea. “However,Washington had dental problems. He started losing teeth during his 20s. By the time he was sworn in as president he had one tooth left.” Which may explain his tight-lipped dollar bill expression.

“He probably never skipped a coin across a river either,” noted the museum’s host. “Washington was very frugal. He would never throw money away.”

And wife Martha was no shrinking violet. As Relyea explains about the first lady, “She was a remarkable woman. Her first husband died, leaving her the wealthiest widow in the Virginia Colony. She controlled 18,000 acres of land and was a shrewd businesswoman for almost two years before marrying George.”

The museum has Martha Washington’s prayer book, published in 1783 and still legible. It sits near 1774 unblemished French porcelain. The oldest relic on display is the hand-scribed will of Colonel Daniel Parke, written in 1710. His grandson, the wealthy Daniel Parke Custis, was Martha’s first husband, who died and left her loaded.

And in a glass case prominently displayed for Columbiana and the world is the little teapot that started it all, when Martha Washington’s decendant asked for an appraisal.



The Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington, 50 Lester St., in Columbiana, is adjacent to the Mildred B. Harrison Regional Library. It is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.washingtonmuseum.com or call 205-669-8767.

War, and the way we remember it

the author’s great-grandfather. Left, Franklin Gaillard, standing between his wife, Tattie, and niece Catherine; seated in front are Franklin’s sisters, Lydia, Betsy and Nan. Franklin was a Southern patriot who was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness.
the author’s great-grandfather. Left, Franklin Gaillard, standing between his wife, Tattie, and niece Catherine; seated in front are Franklin’s sisters, Lydia, Betsy and Nan. Franklin was a Southern patriot who was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness.

By Allison Griffin

The American Civil War, one of the darkest periods in our country’s history, is for most of us relegated to history books and Hollywood films, which often break it down into political, racial or economic terms.

But a new book, released to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the end of the war, frames the conflict through a very human lens, based on letters written by those who lived with its very tragic consequences.

Author Frye Gaillard of Mobile, like many Southerners, grew up with the notion that the Civil War was a sort of glorious lost cause — “we, being the South, might have lost, but we fought so valiantly.”

Frye Gaillard, arthur of 'Journey to the Wilderness' at NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, April 17, 2015. Photo by Lloyd Gallman.
Frye Gaillard, arthur of ‘Journey to the Wilderness’ at NewSouth Books in Montgomery, Ala., on Friday, April 17, 2015. Photo by Lloyd Gallman.

Gaillard is a student of the history of the South who’s also written several books about its past, its culture and its music. But Gaillard also has a unique perspective on the Civil War: He had a grandfather who lived to be 103, and whose mind was lucid till the very end. That man, Samuel Palmer Gaillard, was born in 1856, so he very literally remembered the Civil War.

Samuel Gaillard was an Alabama lawyer and a natural storyteller, and he found an appreciative audience in his young grandson. He recalled the war in a very painful way — his father, his uncles and a cousin were all killed in the war.

Frye Gaillard grew up with these stories and was always intrigued with that part of our history, but his adulthood was soon overshadowed by yet another painful period. He became a journalist and spent many years covering the intense years of the civil rights movement.

Yet his grandfather’s stories were always with him. A few years ago, he started thinking about how some of his relatives had saved the letters written by family members during the Civil War — some of whom were fighting, and some who were home awaiting news from the front.

He gathered as many of the letters as he could, these verbal snapshots of a long-ago time, and found that they were in some ways more in line with his grandfather’s memories than with some of the books he’d read.

“Even though they did refer to the heroism and honor of Confederate troops, they also were filled with a sense of loss and a sense of tragedy,” he says.

WILDERNESS BOOK

A new life for old letters

The letters became the basis for the new book, Journey to the Wilderness (NewSouth Books, $23.95), which helps reveal, through the words of those who lived it, the pain and very real sense of despair that settled over the South during the Civil War.

Gaillard relied on the work of professional historians to provide the context for this book, which is more in the realm of a memoir than a history textbook. He and his grandfather were close, and the war touched Samuel Gaillard personally. The letters made it easy to humanize the story; in fact, the process of going through the letters was somewhat painful.

“It didn’t seem like it was very long ago, when you have these words from those days right in front of you,” he says. “And having known somebody personally who, even though he was a child, literally remembered that period of time, made it more real and more personal too.”

The title has a double meaning — “wilderness” as a metaphor for the wilderness of war, but also as a nod to his ancestor, Franklin Gaillard, who was the family’s most prolific letter writer and who was killed at the Battle of the Wilderness in May 1864. Wilderness was a particularly gruesome battle; the woods caught fire, and many of the wounded soldiers were burned alive.

“I think that, in a way, we owe these ancestors a realistic compassion for what they went through,” Gaillard says.

Beyond all of the political issues of the war, slavery chief among them, the story is really one of tragedy for both sides, and should be remembered that way, Gaillard says.

“I think we owe it to the people who lived in those times to recognize the pain and the tragedy that they were forced to contend with.”


Author, teacher … and songwriter collaborator

Frye Gaillard, writer-in-residence at the University of South Alabama and author of several books about Southern culture and history, has also branched out into contemporary music.

He’s not a singer, but he’s teamed up with some talented Southern singer-songwriters to pen lyrics to their music. Gaillard says he’s always been intrigued by what he calls the literature of the songwriter, looking at song lyrics as poetry.

His partnerships have included singer-songwriters Anne E. DeChant of Nashville; Davis Raines, a former prison guard and Alabama native; Kathryn Scheldt, a Fairhope native; and Pamela Jackson, a native of Auburn who is also now in Nashville.

The songs are often partly or mostly complete by the time Gaillard gets involved, so he may contribute a verse or two. But that’s OK. “It’s a chance to get out and use song lyrics to look at things that matter to people,” he says. “And it’s fun.”

He’s toured recently with all of those artists — doing readings, playing music and telling stories — usually playing to small venues in intimate settings. “People wind up with these programs, listening to music in a slightly different way, maybe a little more attentively, to what it’s really saying,” he says. “It’s fun to see that, because their enjoyment of the songs seems to go deeper.”