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Posted April 10, 2010 | comments Leave a comment

Uncovered past: Long-awaited Luray Valley Museum honors area's history

By Amber Marra -- amarra@nvdaily.com

LURAY -- It is already known that below the ground of Page County's seat there are displays of natural beauty twisting in the form of Luray Caverns.

Now, the Luray Valley Museum, which is newly open to the public, will serve as a microcosm of how life was above ground from the times of American Indians, to the Civil War to the Reconstruction Era.

Walking into the museum, which has been in the works since the 1970s, visitors can find artifacts from the American Indians who occupied the area originally. These include several pipes and a map of the area drawn up in 1683.

The theme then transitions over to the iron period, with stove plates depicting religious scenes mounted wall-to-wall.

There is even one that Rod Graves, founder and historian of the Luray Valley Museum, says is among the few stove plates in America with both German and English languages on it, dating back to 1787.

"Luray Caverns has always been such a magnificent display of God's handiwork, and now we want to show people above ground as well," Graves said.

Through a room dedicated to showcasing pottery and furniture dating back to the 1800s, visitors can find ancient wardrobes and pie safes.

Some of the most beautiful pieces are extremely rare blanket chests handcrafted by Johannes Spitler, an early settler in the Massanutten region.

According to Graves, there are 20 or fewer examples of Spitler's work left, many of which showcase his quintessential style of using graceful compass work to create motifs including flowers and birds.

To get to what Graves and his wife, Isabel, call "the centerpiece to the museum" visitors will have to delve a little deeper into the building, which was originally an old wheat-threshing barn.

This is all to get to the Abraham Strickler Bible, a 1536 German language version of the New and Old Testaments, which was brought to America in the early 1700s by Swiss immigrants looking to freely practice their Mennonite faith.

Isabel Graves, a native of Portugal, says the Bible should be especially precious to immigrants.

"This Bible represents a Statue of Liberty of the time. It doesn't matter if you're Baptist. It doesn't matter if you're Jewish. This is America, and you're free to come and worship as you please," she said.

Not all of the artifacts housed in the Luray Valley Museum are representative of great beauty or overcoming religious oppression. Some exhibit how life was lived day to day. Graves obtained the museum's 1810 road wagon from Stephens City, which was called Newtown at the time.

In a nearby glass case is the signature of Davy Crockett, the famed frontiersman who worked in the Luray Valley as a wagon driver in his younger years. The signature has been verified as authentic by historians at the Alamo in Texas.

"When I was in Texas I told them at the Alamo I had the signature of Davy Crockett, and they said, 'Yeah, right, it's probably a fake,' so we sent it out right away, and they verified it for us," Graves said.

The museum has also partnered with the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation to create an exhibit that tells the story of soldiers from the Union and Confederacy, as well as those of slaves.

One artifact, a diary of a 12-year-old girl, gives a firsthand account of the Battle of New Market and the burning of multiple buildings that ensued.

About 6,000 acres of battlefields have been preserved by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation, but 13,000 acres remain unprotected, according to Denman Zirkle, executive director of the foundation.

To raise further awareness of preserving Civil War battle sites in the area, there will be a re-enactment held in the area next to the museum in September.

It will make use of several of the buildings on-site that have been physically picked up off of their foundations and moved from various locations in the county.

The moved buildings include the Hamburg Regular School, which used to be a one-room school exclusively for black children, as well as the Elk Run Meeting House. The meeting house is especially relevant to the Civil War, as it was once used as a hospital for wounded soldiers who left their signatures and marks on the walls, many of which are still visible today.

One soldier, William Hess, of the 66th Ohio Regiment, signed his name to the wall only to die of complications from his wounds two months later, according to Graves.

"This will let us introduce the impact of the Civil War in the valley," said Terence Heder, program manager of field services for the foundation. "We try to find individual people and show how it affected them."

Visit the Luray Valley Museum

The Luray Valley Museum has been open to the public since April 3, but grand opening festivities will be held on Aug. 14.

Tickets to the Luray Valley Museum are included in the general admission price of $23 for adults and $11 for children.

Hours and days of operation vary seasonally, but more information can be found at www.luraycaverns.com.

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