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Friday, January 10, 2014

Little place, big archive: The Central Rappahannock Heritage Center

Last fall I went to the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center (CRHC). It was such an amazing experience that I wanted to repository with you all.  The center is located in Fredericksburg, Virginia near downtown.  They do have odd hours of operation, so make sure you check that they will be open when you go and place accordingly.  Oh, and park in the correct places so you don't get towed!  

This facility has over 120,000 pieces if ephemera from as early as 1700.  It specializes in items from the counties surrounding the City of Fredericksburg (Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania, and Stafford) as well as the city itself.  Most of the items are either documents (manuscripts, letters, and various records) or pictures which were donated to the facility since it opened its doors in 1998.

I called the center and talked with one of the volunteer archivists there and made plans for me to visit the center.  The CRHC is in the basement gymnasium of an old middle school; now a set of condominiums.  It was large, spacious, and contained several private desks to work. This was a great to see since I didn't know what to expect when I got there. Overall it was really a lovely place, just hard to find if you don’t know where it is located.  There is a small paid staff at the center, but it relies mainly on a large group of active volunteers to make the facility run.  Oh, and donations.

At our meeting we talked about the general collection. She showed me the collection of letters that started the CRHC from the Frank P. Stearns Family (who was a prominent builder and contractor in the city).  Beth explained that the letters in it were mainly written by the women of the family who were, thankfully, prolific writers and lucky for us they kept many of the letters sent to them in return.  Patrons may not retrieve the records themselves so I asked her to pull a random box from the collection so I could see what it was like.   In total it is a 56 box collection spanning from the 1840s to the 1930s.

To say you could get lost with the amount of information in that room would be an understatement.  It was absolutely amazing to see the history of the community housed here, in that tiny gym.  Even more astounding to me was that all the items were donations from people who lived in the area, or who had found papers from relatives who used to live here.  Many of their donated images are published online and you can see them here.

The CRHC has recently published book from letters they were given.  It is called "The Circle Unbroken: Civil War Letters of the Knox Family of Fredericksburg."  The story takes place through the letters from a Civil War Soldier home to his fmaly.  OVer 100 letters in all, donated to the CRHC in a bucket.  You can read a stroy about the book and the letters here from the local newspaper.

This facility was fascinating and it makes me wish I had relatives in this area so I could research there more often.  However, it was such a lovely place, and in desperate need of help, that I think I might start volunteering at the CRHC in the future.

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