Lost in time

Varina resident and historian Henry Nelson gestures toward open space at the Four Mile Creek Park in Varina, where a Henrico history center has been planned for a decade. But no funding exists for the construction of the facility.
On the site that one day will tell the history of Henrico County under a single roof, a small wooden hut serves as an unofficial welcome center for guests.

“And over there is the restroom,” says Henry Nelson, chuckling as he points to a single portable toilet across the parking lot.

Nelson, clad in a signature black cowboy hat and black leather jacket, surveys the landscape on an overcast morning here, at Four Mile Creek Park in Varina, with eyes that can see into the future, thanks to a vision of the past.

For 40 years, Nelson has led the push for Henrico County to fund and build a history center – a facility that would recount the county’s 405-year story to citizens and tourists alike.

But despite some progress in years past (the county included the center as part of its master plan for the 400-acre park, funded a schematic plan and renderings of the facility in 2006 and organized a study committee in 2011), time has marched on, and the center remains only a concept.

No funding source exists to pay the $20 million construction costs for the 30,000-square-foot center (shown below in a rendering prepared for the county in 2006 by the Timmons Group) and a smaller visitors center on the site.

To Nelson, it’s a missed opportunity to promote Henrico – the second-oldest English colony in the United States but a place whose wealth of history is unknown by many of its own citizens, much less others in the state and nation.

“The county can afford to do this,” he says. “The question is, can it afford not to do this?”

Potential economic impact
Time, Nelson fears, is running out. As a longtime county historian, former Henrico principal and educator and Varina resident whose home sits just a stone’s throw from Four Mile Creek Park, he is perhaps as familiar as anyone could be with the role the county, and Varina specifically, have played in the nation’s development.

And with a newly proposed bond referendum slated for the Nov. 8 ballot (details, p. 1), he’s hoping that renewed public support for the history center might somehow convince supervisors and county officials to consider placing the facility on that list of projects.

“It’s normally about 10 years between bond referendums,” Nelson says. “I would venture to say that the opportunity is now, and if it’s missed, it might be permanent.”

In a May 4 letter, Historic Preservation Advisory Committee Chairwoman Sarah Pace also urged the Board of Supervisors and Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas to include funding for the center in the bond referendum, making the case that the facility would produce revenue for the county.

“Building a History Center will attract and serve tourists from across the country a well as internationally,” she wrote, citing data that shows cultural heritage travelers spend an average of $623 per trip, compared with $457 per trip for other travelers. “The History Center will not only serve the public on the county, state and national level but will attract people from abroad due to the vast heritage of the county. Many families trace their ancestry to Henrico County.

“The History Center will add Henrico as an interesting and vital location for heritage visitation along the Virginia Capital Trail. . . Having a History Center enlightens students, citizens and heritage visitors from distant places about the place we call Henrico County.”

But Vithoulkas told the Citizen this week that the project will not be included in the proposal he will present to the Board of Supervisors May 24.

“It’s not in the county’s 5-year Capital Improvement Program [a list of projects deemed necessary by the county in the next 5 years], so in my mind it’s not a project that really qualifies for a referendum,” Vithoulkas said. Providing funding for schools and other public safety and recreation needs take priority, he said.

“An entirely public-funded museum to me just does not rise to the same level.”

(Vithoulkas suggested that a privately funded effort could speed the process significantly.)

The value of history
That would disappoint Nelson (who also serves on the HPAC) and other proponents of the history center, including Route 5 Corridor Coalition co-chair Nicole Anderson Ellis.

Erecting a history center “would be another step in a long journey that the county, and frankly the entire region, the Route 5 corridor, has taken in terms of recognizing the value of its history,” says Ellis, recalling that when she moved to the area from Georgia years ago and learned of its rich history, she was surprised.

“I was floored that more wasn’t being done to promote and profit from that history.”

Nelson looks along the Route 5 corridor from the park and sees this as the perfect spot from which to attract a variety of visitors. Nearly 200,000 already have used the Virginia Capital Trail – which connects Williamsburg to Richmond and runs through the Four Mile Creek Park site – since it opened officially last September. And tapping into the historic tourism appeal of Williamsburg – just 40 miles east on Route 5 – would be a natural fit, he says.

“Everybody we’ve talked to says we’ve got the best unclaimed site for tourism in Henrico County,” he says. “We just have a plethora of opportunities for ourselves to toot our own horn and make money doing it.”

The visitors’ center could inform travelers commuting along I-295 to points north and south of Henrico’s unique contributions to American history, from Pocahontas and John Rolfe, to Patrick Henry’s “Give Me Liberty” speech to Civil War battles and more, Nelson says. And the history center itself – complete with a visual and chronological tour through four centuries in Henrico, including artifacts and displays and a lecture hall – could serve Henrico’s 51,000-plus schoolchildren year-round. Nelson even envisions a potential partnership between a college or university and a planned hotel across the street from the site, whereby students could be trained in hospitality and tourism roles.

“It’s a compelling story,” says Varina District Supervisor Tyrone Nelson (no relation to Henry Nelson) of the history center. “It’s been on the table for some time. Clearly I think we need one at some point. The advocates for it continue to keep it before us, and we appreciate that.”

Telling Henrico’s story
Without a museum, some of Henrico’s history is scattered among a number of historic facilities and house museums, according to Chris Gregson, who oversees the collection of some 10,000 historical items for the county’s Division of the county’s Recreation and Parks.

About 7,000 of those are currently on display at one of the nine historic buildings, including the Meadow Farm Museum, Courtney Road gas station and Virginia Randolph Museum in Glen Allen, the Dabbs House Museum and Tourist Information Center in Eastern Henrico and the Clarke-Palmore House Museum in Varina.

“Right now without a [history] center, our emphasis is on making sure we can display what we have in storage,” Gregson says.

Toward that end, he and others have taken a more critical look at the county’s holdings and items that are offered as donations.

The other 3,000 or more items, artifacts and archival papers are being stored at an undisclosed location in western Henrico, he says.

Among the county’s holdings are older items, such as military uniforms and paraphernalia from the Civil War and World War I, farming records from the Sheppard family (which lived at Meadow Farm), handwritten documents documenting slavery and Gabriel’s Rebellion, 19th century maps of the county, as well as newer items, such as the cupola from the original Krispy Kreme store on West Broad Street and a collection of women’s hats from the 1960s.

Gregson and others have been busy adding pieces to each of the county’s historic facilities, in an attempt to showcase more of what the county owns. While he concedes that a history center would be a valuable addition, Gregson says he’s proud of the way the county displays its history currently, too.

“I think there’s a lot of people in the community that would enjoy seeing a history of the county from start to finish in one space,” he says. “I think we do pretty well, too, though, with the facilities that we have. They’re really top notch historical sites. Meadow Farm tells the story of the 19th century, and Clarke-Palmore tells the story of the 20th century. We have artifacts at the Henrico Theatre, the transportation aspect at the Courtney Road gas station, the educational aspect at Deep Run School Museum and the Virginia Randolph Museum, lots of Civil War battlefields. We are telling the story as is.”

For Henry Nelson, that story won’t be complete until he can step inside the Henrico History Center at Four Mile Creek Park.

“If we miss this bond referendum,” he says, “it might be another 10 years until the next one, and another 5 or 10 years after that before it’s built. That’s 20 years, and I may not be around by then.”
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June 2017
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Friends of the Glen Allen Library will hold its Biggest Book Sale Ever from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 23-24. A variety of over 5,000 well-sorted books, DVDs and CDs for all ages will be on sale at prices ranging from $0.25 to $2. Highlights include over 750 books pertaining to history/politics/military and over 750 children’s books. A special collection of unique, antique and rare items will also be offered at slightly higher prices. Cash preferred but checks accepted. Bring your own shopping bag. Proceeds benefit the Glen Allen Library and its programs. For details, call 501-1950 or visit http://www.henricolibrary.org. Full text

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