A George Washington Museum, In Alabama

Jun 10, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A short drive south of Birmingham is a museum that might seem more at home near the nation's capital. It's dedicated to George Washington. Andrew Yeager with member station WBHM joined some visitors there to take in the collection.

ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: The reason there's a George Washington museum in Columbiana, Ala., boils down to a teapot. It was 1982, and a woman living nearby took her teapot to an appraiser.

DON RELYEA: From the markings on it, he knew that it had belonged to a descendant of Martha Washington.

YEAGER: That's museum curator Don Relyea. He says the appraiser asked the woman if she understood what she had.

RELYEA: That's when she told him she was a sixth-generation granddaughter of Martha Washington.

YEAGER: Relyea says the woman was interested in selling the artifacts that had been passed down through her family. Some went to Mt. Vernon, George Washington's estate in Virginia. But a substantial portion of the collection was purchased by a local banker. That became the foundation of the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington.

RELYEA: First of all, let me introduce myself.

YEAGER: Nowadays, Ralyea gives tours like this one to a nearby church women's group.

RELYEA: What I like to do is start with the oldest thing we've got. It's over here in the corner. So let's go over this way.

YEAGER: He points out key artifacts, Martha Washington's prayer book, George Washington's cufflinks, French porcelain vases from 1785 that survived a flood. Throughout, Relyea tells stories like George Washington's advice to his granddaughter on a potential husband.

RELYEA: He told her that there were three things that he thought were the most important things that she should look for. And I'll tell you what they are later.

(LAUGHTER)

YEAGER: Among the 700 items on display are letters from Founding Fathers, a tea set which Relyea says is his favorite. And he says, being around these objects, it's hard not to create your own stories. He says a candle on a bedside table does that for him. He imagines George Washington in a chair, reading by candlelight.

RELYEA: And then in the background, I can hear Martha hollering out, George, you be careful how you blow that candle out. You're getting wax all over that table.

(LAUGHTER)

RELYEA: Because if you look at this side of the table, it's covered with wax stains. But not that side - so the chair was always over there.

YEAGER: The women are soaking it all in. But the museum does seem a bit hidden in plain sight. Several women admit they didn't know anything about the collection until recently, even though it's just down the road. Ramona Adams says she learned about it when she met Don Relyea's wife on a church trip.

RAMONA ADAMS: We were roommates. And she was telling me about it. And I said, gosh, I didn't even know there was a museum in Columbiana.

YEAGER: Relyea says, while they've had visitors from around the world, he's disappointed more people don't know about the museum. He says it represents an important period of American history, one he doesn't want to be overlooked.

SIMON: WBHM's Andrew Yeager joins us now onstage. Andrew, thanks so much for being with us.

YEAGER: It's good to be with you.

SIMON: You did leave us hanging, though. What three things did George Washington tell his granddaughter to look for in a husband?

YEAGER: Well, the first thing was that her potential spouse should be an American. That way, you wouldn't get married and have to be taken off to another country. The second thing was that your spouse should be close in age to you. He and Martha Washington were close in age. And, presumably, that was important to him.

And the third thing was that you should be friends first - that when sort of the infatuation of love dissipates, you're left with something. And, basically, what happened is granddaughter did not take any of that advice...

SIMON: (Laughter).

YEAGER: ...And got a divorce.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Ah. I think I took - no. Just one of those.

YEAGER: Just one of those.

SIMON: Yeah, just one of those. But, in any event, he was a great man. That's WBHM's Andrew Yeager. Thanks so much for being with us, Andrew.

YEAGER: Great to be here.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.