A short drive south of Birmingham is a museum that might seem more at home in the nation’s capital. It’s dedicated to George Washington.
The reason there’s a George Washington museum in Columbiana boils down to a teapot. It was 1982 and a woman living nearby took her teapot to an appraiser.
“From the markings on it, he knew that it had belonged to a descendent of Martha Washington,” says museum curator Don Relyea. He says the appraiser asked the woman if she understood what she had.
“That’s when she told him she was a sixth generation granddaughter of Martha Washington,” says Relyea.
Relyea says the woman was interested in selling the artifacts that had been passed down through her family. Some went to Mount 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.
Nowadays Relyea gives tours. On a recent one given to a nearby church women’s group he points out key artifacts such as Martha Washington’s prayer book, George Washington’s cufflinks and French porcelain vases from 1785 that survived a flood.
Throughout the tour Relyea tells stories, like George Washington’s advice to his granddaughter on a potential husband.
“He told her that there were three things that he thought were the most important things that she should look for,” says Relyea.
Washington’s suggestion was that she should marry a fellow American so she wouldn’t have to move to another country, her spouse should be close to her in age and they should be friends. When his granddaughter did marry none of those things applied and she got a divorce.
Among the 700 items on display are letters from founding fathers and a tea set which Relyea says is his favorite. 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.
“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.’” says Relyea. “Because if you look at this side of the table it’s covered with wax stains.”
The museum does seem a bit hidden in plain sight with several women on the tour admitting 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.
“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,” says Adams.
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 that he doesn’t want to be overlooked.