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, West Virginia
July 22, 2005
We’re late--after 4pm, closing time. No matter, the door is unlocked, and Olivia Sue
phones home without prompting to say she’ll be ready to leave at 5:15pm. I get the feeling she
can’t pass up any opportunity to show the collection.
We make short shrift of the mummies--recent mummies! National Geographic,
Fox News, and other media have covered the Philippi Mummies, and visitors can view the National Geographic video.
I take photos, but Olivia informs me that I must get
permission from the owner to publish them. This museum has so much Civil War
memorabilia that one can be fascinated for an hour without viewing mummies. (After
Olivia’s commentary on each display, every visitor becomes an authority on the
Battle of Philippi.) About the mummies, I’ll just say that a letter on display from the
female makes me wonder if she really belonged in Weston State Hospital for the Insane.
Colonel Kelley’s sword, with which he led the charge down Broaddus Hill and across the
covered bridge into Philippi, is on display along with many cannonballs, other
swords, muskets, homemade bullets, General McClellan’s saddle, and
The first amputation of the war occurred here, and (now) Hanger Orthopedic Group’s
prosthesis is displayed. Photos of Yankees and Confederates, including Colonel Porterfield,
commander of the southern detachment that occupied Philippi, and others decorate walls.
Guns, medicines, flags, tools, and more are accompanied with familiar narration, as
though Olivia had been there.
Her description of the fierce storm in which the charge was made; the exact location of each
officer and his path across town; the building, roof, or lawn where each artifact was
recovered; content of telegraph messages that were intercepted; mistakes that were made
by Confederate officers and lookouts--all is revealed. It may have been not the most
exciting battle, but it must be the most-intimately covered one!
Olivia demonstrates, too, as she does with this antique lawnmower.
Every item is explained with an appropriate twist of irony or sarcasm, and I’m so
entertained that I find myself confused by a myriad of details. No problem! With the
patience of Job, she begins at the beginning and retells that part of the story until I can repeat
it back to her: "Okay, so Porterfield was occupying the train depot in Grafton
when he intercepted McClellan’s message and passed it on to Robert E. Lee. When Lee
didn’t act upon it, Porterfield took it upon himself to burn railroad bridges."
She nods her affirmative the whole while, so I know I’m getting it right. She’s a born
educator! I must run down to the courthouse now to see the "new" one, since I know
everything that happened there and in the old one, too, when Rebels used it as their
One can buy beautiful books for children and adults about the battle and the bridge.
From journal The State Born of the Civil War, Part I: Philippi
July 15, 2003
At times travelling through rural West Virginia, it seems I have returned to a simpler time, when people were bound to the land their ancestors cleared and the heart of a community still centered on the church and town hall. It’s easy to imagine that Philippi looked exactly the same twenty, eighty, a hundred years ago.
But I am mistaken. Things have changed. I’ve only to step into the Barbour County Historical Museum to find out just how much.
My guide down the river of the past is named Evangeline Poling. A silver-haired lady of kindly disposition, she seems to me a modern day Mnemosyne, goddess of memory and mother of the nine muses.
What Mrs. Poling doesn’t know about Philippi’s past isn’t worth mentioning. But it is her peculiar gift for narrative that attracts me. All I have to do is express simple curiosity about any of the objects in the museum and she summons the words to bring them to life.
"My great-grandfather carried that drum at Appomattox," she says, following my gaze to an enormous drum mounted on the wall. "He was a drummer boy."
Indeed, the museum is full of artifacts Mrs. Poling can personally account for. Her grandfather, for example, created the switchboard on display in one room. "We didn’t have direct dial until 1953," she tells me. Leafing through a thin directory from the 1950’s, she finds his number: 4.
In another room are displays of old medicines and surgical equipment. And here, with a bit of gentle prodding, Mrs. Poling tells me of her family history; of the grandfather, Dr. Myers, who rode in a buggy over rough country lanes, and who, concerned about the quack claims of patent medicines, started his own company to manufacture and distribute medicines. An oak display cabinet contains his treatments; nearby rests a photo of the doctor’s family. The sons and then grandchildren in turn all pursued medical degrees.
An the hour passes as I hear of the Philippi bridge restoration, the saga of the Philippi mummies, and accounts of historic disasters. I’m mesmerized by this wise cicerone, who seems to me beautiful in the way that all contented people are.
All too soon, our boat bumps gently against the shores of the present, and I step back into June 23, 2003.
"Please assume...that there is in our souls a block of wax....Let us, then, say that this is the gift of Memory, the mother of the Muses, and that whenever we wish to remember anything we see or hear or think of in our own minds, we hold this wax under the perceptions and thoughts and imprint them upon it…and whatever is imprinted we remember and know as long as its image lasts, but whatever is rubbed out or cannot be imprinted we forget and do not know." Plato, Theaetetus
From journal Country Roads and Covered Bridges