FORT VALLEY — An early 1830s building that was once the Old Brick Church at Dry Run is now the Fort Valley Museum that tells the story of Fort Valley and its founding families.
Scheduled to open this weekend for the season, the Fort Valley Museum, 8631 Fort Valley Road, is hosting a new exhibit, titled “Fort Valley Country Stores through the Years” with six new items recently acquired from local families.
Meg Trott, historian and local author, recalled a time when the museum was a community church, which housed five different Protestant denominations prior to its last occupant, the Church of God in Christ Jesus.
“It sat vacant for some time,” Trott said. “But then it became a community [center] during the early '50s into the early '70s. They held dances here, to semi-honor the community and our history.”
A citizen’s vote in 1972 turned the Old Brick Church into a community museum, which opened in July 1974 with an official dedication as part of Fort Valley’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976.
Trott said the museum flourished during the '70s, '80s, and early '90s. But by the mid-to-late 90s, there was a decline in interest.
“People had aged out and it was really just getting to be like an attic for the community,” Trott explained. “When somebody passed away they brought their stuff here and it kind of got piled up. I had friends who were scared to enter.”
In 2004, local residents recognized the value a museum could have on their community and made it their mission to restore it. Eventually the museum grew to include more exhibits at Trinity Church across the road.
Curator Amy Jett was glad the museum acquired Trinity Church in 2008.
“As you can see, we have a lot of items,” Jett said. “There comes a point when families start to recognize that they’ve enjoyed an item for 50 years or so, but don’t know what to do with it next. So, they come to us. If we find it relevant, of course, we take it. And a lot of times those items are simply wonderful.”
Hundreds of items sit in the museum, where natural light pools through shuttered windows, giving each item a sort of glow. Items include musical instruments, Native American artifacts, geological samples, spinning wheels, quilts, clothing, and a detailed map of Fort Valley, which was taken from the 1885 Lake’s Atlas and drawn by Amanda and Fran Deren.
“I think Fort Valley is a beautiful place,” Trott said. “The fact that I’ve lived here for 53 years, raised my children here. I’m just glad to be a part of something so grand.”
Jett also has a personal connection to the museum's building, as her five times great-grandfather built the then church.
“It was meant for anyone to be able to use,” Jett explained. “Because religious freedom was something that in the early 1800s, early 1830, was important. So, he was giving them a place for people to come and worship if they didn’t have another place to go.”
Jett said over the years the museum has had to become more discerning about the items the museum adds to its collection. She said it is important to make sure that the items are directly related to the history of and families of Fort Valley, as opposed to just Virginia or Shenandoah Valley history in general.
“It’s their heritage. It’s their relatives. It’s items that belong to their families,” she said. “It’s important to us that we showcase our history in a dignified, yet meaningful way.”
A special exhibit is slated to open Saturday, titled “Fort Valley Country Stores Through the Years.” The new exhibit highlights current and past sites in Fort Valley that were once country stores, 13 of which are still standing today.
“At one point there were over 20 different stores in the Fort, selling different things,” Jett explained.
Jeffery Jordan, museum docent and model-building hobbyist, created a diorama from photographs of the W.F. Lichliter Grocery found on social media.
“When I saw the photographs, I thought it was a really interesting building in all the different sections and rooflines. I told myself, ‘I think I could build a model of that,’” he said.
The model took over 18 months to complete from photographs — no plan or measurements. Jordan said he was pleased with how it turned out and is glad to lend it to the museum for the country store exhibit.
The museum also has new digital archives.
Archivist Lloyd Mass is helping the museum archive photographs, documents, and other items so people nationwide can find their families' history. Mass said the museum is also expanding its older archives.
“We have interviews, and history interviews, dating back to the '80s, '70s, and up to current times that detail what life was like here in the Fort, today and in the past.”
Mass said the project itself has been fascinating and continues to grow.
“Some of these interviews are really well documented,” Mass said. “Oftentimes, 95% of these types of things are usually buried in file cabinets and boxes in a museum. And yet, they tell a story and can make history more interesting.”
Mass interviews a handful of locals each month, starting with the eldest residents.
“We have a very well-established community here in the Fort,” he said. “Many of these families have been here since the 1700s and 1800s, and we know everyone and everyone knows us.”
Items recently obtained and added to the museum's collection include several spinning wheels and an organ. For the museum's first exterior exhibit, there is a wooden box that once contained fire-fighting tools, used in the Fort before the firehouse was built.
“This community was really, really well-known for many years in the fact that they made all their own clothing,” Jett said. “We have lots of quilts and linens. As well as a whole section of farming items because, as you know, a lot of people who lived up here and still do, are farmers.”
Trinity Church also houses a growing reference library as well as storage that holds delicate items including clothing and a handmade rug made by three sisters who couldn’t afford a real Persian rug. A permanent exhibit tells the stories of different churches throughout the Valley and its history.
“Technology has taken leaps and bounds in the last few years,” Jett said. “But we want to make sure we preserve some of the things in the past.”
Fort Valley Museum is open Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day weekend through October from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and 2 to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
To learn more about the Fort Valley Museum, visit fortvalleymuseum.org
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