The museum was established in 1976 currently occupies the city’s Old Courthouse built in 1855 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This 1855 Court House was built in the Greek Revival architecture on the location of the first courthouse built in 1813. Unusual gargoyles adorn the eaves and were supposed to resemble the lions on the Parthenon, but as the museum suggests, they look more like pigs. Another unusual fact is that after the town was founded, they noticed the original courthouse was located outside the town boundary, so they had to expand the limits to get that place into the town.
The museum focuses on the history of Lynchburg and the central Virginia Piedmont area along with special exhibits. One unusual exhibit mentioned later concerns a paranormal event. The city was founded along the banks of the James River and named for its founder, John Lynch, who at the age of 17 started a ferry service across the James River in 1757. The Monacan Indian tribe lived in the Lynchburg area until well into the 17th century, but were driven westward or killed by the Powhatan and Iroquois tribes. Quakers were the first religious group to settle in Lynchburg.
Lynchburg in 1810 and 1855
In October 1786, the Virginia General Assembly granted John Lynch a charter for a the town. The 45 acres granted for the town were his own land. Lynchburg was incorporated as a town in 1805 and as a city in 1852. From April 6 to 10, 1865, Lynchburg served as the capital of Virginia.
Tobacco was the huge cash crop that brought riches to the city. “Packet Boats” were used to take mail, passengers and tobacco to the eastern cities and ports for export to the rest of the world. A model of the Marshall Packet Boat is on display along with the original desk from the boat. In 1886, Lynchburg was the largest loose-leaf tobacco company in the world with 25 factories. The Bonsack cigarette machine was invented and manufactured here in 1880 which produced cigarettes commercially.
Lynchburg Virginia is one of the oldest inland cities in the State and was spared destruction during the Civil War. Tobacco, railroads and manufacturing brought the city into a thriving industrial community back in the day. It has now diversified from smoke and smokestacks to a leading health care center including technology companies. It is also home to five universities and colleges.
My daughter and I visited on a hot sunny July day, but easily found shaded, free 2-hour parking directly in front of the museum. I visited the city a few years ago, but this museum was closed while a new exhibit was being installed. The ladies at the entrance counter were eager to tell us all about the exhibits and some of the history of the museum building itself.
The special exhibit the day of our visit was entitled “WE THE WOMEN” which chronicles and commemorates the 19th Amendment. The 19th Amendment made it illegal to deny the right to vote to any citizen based on their sex, which effectively granted women the right to vote. It was first introduced to Congress in 1878 and was finally certified 42 years later in 1920.
A few exhibits highlight famous residents. Astronaut Leland Melvin logged 560 hours in space and two missions with Space Shuttle Atlantis. Arthur Ashe, the first African-American named to the Davis Cup Team and winner of the 1968 U.S. Open was coached by a Lynchburg Physician and tennis coach, Dr. Walter Johnson. The green brocade belonged to notable stage dancer Helen McGehee who was also a clothing designer. Narcissa Owen who convinced two Civil War Union spies that there were 20,000 Confederate soldiers in the city (a big fib, I think there were 600), and caused the Union forces to retreat from a planned attack.
Olive Taylor Cardwell who is known for her plantation life figurines like “Tilda” who walked four miles to the store for her dozen eggs that she balanced on her head while walking so she could do knitting at the same time. Mitchell David “Screechy” Carwile who played the Gibson guitar and was billed as the “South’s Sweetest Singer” on many radio shows during the 1930’s. And Bill Dudley who was enshrined in the Canton Football Hall of Fame in 1966, nicknamed “Bullet Bill” and played for my hometown Pittsburgh Steelers around his Army Air Corps service during WWII.
And now for the paranormal event of the Cursed Self-Rocking Cradle. As legend has it, in 1839 the said wooden cradle was borrowed by Reverend Smith from Bishop Early. One morning Rev. Smith’s wife called him in to see the cradle rocking by itself. Legend says that whenever Rev. Smith called out the name of the devil "Beelzebub", the cradle would begin rocking by itself and sometimes continue for as long as a month with no one touching it. Many residents heard about this and stopped by to watch the phenomenon in action. Rev. Smith returned the cradle to the Bishop where it was stored in his attic and the wooden rockers were later replaced by family heirs then donated to the museum. After the wood rockers were replaced, the phenomenon ended. What happened to the newborns rocked in this cradle? The second preacher's baby died, and the first preacher's baby had to be locked away in a lunatic asylum.
Other exhibits promote the historical industries of Lynchburg. Shoe companies abounded like Craddock-Terry, the largest shoe company in the South, gunsmiths like Levi Fisher, iron forges, flour sacks and top hats, and other manufactured items.
Other famous products from Lynchburg. In 1889, Dr. Charles Brown Fleet, a young pharmacist who moved to Lynchburg in 1869, invented and began selling his Fleet's Chap-Stick lip balm. In 1893, Fleet developed the formula for phospho-soda, the basic ingredient for the Fleet Enema. Organized as C.B. Fleet Co., Inc., in 1916, the company developed the first disposable, small volume enema in 1953 and the first disposable douche product, Summer's Eve, in 1973. Eeek!
Another first, was the NS Savannah. Launched in 1962, it was the world’s first nuclear powered passenger and cargo ship with a reactor made in Lynchburg. And a local Dr. Dillard worked on the development of the first atomic bomb used in WWII.
In October 1868, Dr. Malcolm (Mahlon) Loomis, a part-time resident of Lynchburg, used a vertical antenna, a high-frequency detector and a sparkgap transmitter to successfully send electro-magnetic waves through the atmosphere, thus inventing radio, six years before the birth of the "father of radio," Guglielmo Marconi. Despite records that indicate Loomis invented the radio, he lacked the necessary funds to perfect his equipment and gain recognition for his invention.
Additional exhibits include Lynchburg’s participation in various wars from the Civil War to conflicts of today. A Civil War cannon, WWI Uniform, WWII Flight Helmet/Microphone/Oxygen Mask, WWII Soldiers arriving at Lynchburg Union Station from Camp Pickett, various military items, and an officer’s sash and silk during the Civil War, and a military footlocker.
Other local Lynchburg city items on display include a Chewing Tobacco Box, Girl Scout Uniform 1944, Quaker Dress and Bonnet 1870, Street Car Pull 1910, LOVE Piano (a few more found around the city outdoors), local clockmaker’s Case Clock (used to set all other clock times in the city), and lastly the GLASS SPELLER published by the Lynchburg Superintendent of Schools in 1899. He would have rolled over in his grave with young texters. Notice the quote … “A word misspelled is another word or no word and thus unacceptable.”
Allegedly, the terms "lynching" and "lynch law" are believed to be derived from Colonel Charles Lynch (1736 – 1796) who was an American planter, politician, military officer and judge who headed a kangaroo court in Virginia to punish Loyalists during the Revolutionary War. His brother was the founder of the town of Lynchburg.
Admission to the museum is free and ADA-accessible. The museum is at 901 Court Street. Open 10AM–4PM Monday to Saturday, Noon–4 PM Sunday. Closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. Free 2-hour parking directly on Court Street or use a nearby paid parking garage. There are many eateries within easy walking distance of the museum. Some are located directly on the shores of the James River.