The Story of Augusta

photography by Steve Bracci

First I heard the blast of the horn from down by the bridge at Saint Paul’s. Then I felt the ground vibrate and a deafening blast, much closer, as the two diesel engines warned cars on Reynolds and Broad and Greene off the tracks and hauled the string of box cars and tankers, which stretched across the river over to South Carolina, down Sixth Street to the freight yard.

The bridge, the blast, the rumble, the click of the wheels on the tracks, it’s a daily experience in the heart of Augusta that goes back about 200 years. Here by the tracks at Broad Street, at the intersection of the past and the present, stands the Augusta Museum of History, exactly where it ought to be.

The museum took possession of its home in 1996 after outgrowing the space it had occupied since 1937 in the Old Richmond Academy. With its elegant rotunda and two floors of exhibit space, the museum tells Augusta’s story with artifacts dating from 12,000 years ago to the present.

A walk through the first floor galleries is a walk through time: the Native-American Stallings Island culture, a pioneer cabin, a reconstructed Petersburg boat, a cotton gin, slave pottery, Civil War flags, uniforms and weapons, photos and objects from Augusta during the two world wars, a transportation corridor complete with a huge 1914 steam engine and tender and a passenger car from the 1920s that fills with pajama-clad children every December for the museum’s annual Polar Express re-creation. There’s a bright yellow streetcar that carried Augustans in the early 1900s, fire trucks,  a gas station and Model T, an exhibit on baseball in Augusta and exhibits carrying you up to...well, now.

The 1864 exhibit, with its photos, maps, voice recordings,
historic dresses, furniture and furnishings set in a constructed
cityscape, took three years from concept to realization.

The sweep of centuries in Augusta provides context for the moment we occupy here. It’s a history told vividly through objects, real things, used and handled by real people, things that have survived the ravages of time, by accident or intention. And every object has its own story, its own connection with someone who lived here.

Upstairs exhibits focus on smaller pieces of that history, among them the year 1864, when Augustans awaited Sherman on his devastating march to the sea; the history of golf in Augusta; the story of Mr. James Brown, the Godfather of Soul; the history of Augusta’s first television station, WJBF; the history of Marine Lt. Col. Jimmie Dyess, a 1927 graduate of Richmond Academy and the only person ever to win America’s two highest awards for heroism. There are colorful quilts, the story of Augusta’s medical community, artifacts from the Georgia Railroad and Bank and lots more.

Planning, designing and mounting one of these exhibits can involve years of work. The 1864 exhibit, with its photos, maps, voice recordings, historic dresses, furniture and furnishings set in a constructed cityscape, took three years from concept to realization.

Collections intern Sarah Carlson designed the 1970s and ’80s display, located behind glass on the right near the exit to the Augusta’s Story exhibit. 
“We had lots of artifacts from the ’70s and ’80s in the collection,” Carlson explains. “We wanted to put them on display. So I was asked to research the period and flesh out the objects. It’s like writing a paper, but instead of using words, I use objects.”

A recent college graduate, Carlson is too young to have experienced the ’70s herself, so she talked to lots of people who had lived through them. She read period issues of The Augusta Chronicle and Ed Cashin’s The Story of Augusta to understand the movements and changes that defined the time in Augusta and throughout the U.S. She used the museum’s catalog of objects to decide what objects best told that story.

Then she ran her ideas past Executive Director Nancy Glaser and Registrar Lauren Virgo. The objects would have to be displayed in a limited space, so she would check in with Exhibits Manager Larry Graham, who would eventually design and build the space. The exhibit took about four months from idea to opening.

So when you look at the things displayed behind that glass, know that each of those objects represents something greater than itself. The vinyl records covering the wall are a visual reminder that music was the background of that era. The Easy Bake Oven from 1973 and the Cabbage Patch doll from 1983 shine a light on changes in the role of women. The covers of Augusta College basketball programs feature, for the first time, white and black players competing together in this era of de-segregation. A sign from J. B. White’s on Broad Street represents the abandonment of downtown with the building of the malls in the late ’70s. The eight-track tape player, the Walk Man, the Polaroid camera and Sony Beta movie camera, the Apple IIc computer with its five-and-a-half-inch floppy disc, the hefty Motorola cellular phone, all tell the story of the technological changes that continue today.  

“Then there’s that wonderful pink plaid suit worn by Nelson Danish.” The Augusta media celebrity of that era donated it to the museum. It is featured in the display beside a powder blue leisure suit, both of these typical fashion statements of the time, when the boundary between dressing for work and dressing for leisure blurred. The two suits teach another important lesson:  “An object doesn’t have to be 200 years old to have value,” Glaser says. “It could be from yesterday.” The museum welcomes donations, however new or old. They must meet the institution’s criteria: be relevant to local history, be in good condition, be exhibitable and have research value.  “The Apple IIc is the first home computer. The one in our exhibit was donated by a man in North Augusta. He has the whole set—all the games and floppies, plus his own story with it. All of that gives it tremendous value for us. You might have a rusty nail—so what? But a rusty nail with a great story, that’s something else.”

The museum can’t accept everything that’s offered, but Glaser is happy to help organizations, churches and individuals understand what they have and how to preserve their own treasures—family Bibles, church records, birth and death certificates and so forth.

“Our major priority is to preserve treasures,” Glaser says. “Yes, we create exhibitions, but preservation is even more important.”

Those treasures are stored and preserved in a state-of-the-art facility, the Knox Foundation Center for the Preservation and Study of the CSRA History, a 10,000-square-foot addition built in 2003. There, appropriately stored in an environment where temperature, humidity and light are carefully controlled, with electric doors and special shelves and drawers (thanks to SPLOST), most of the museum’s million or so artifacts wait out of the public’s sight until the appropriate time comes to display them. Only six to eight percent of the collection is on display at any one time.

Every chair, school desk, table, lamp, wedding gown, map,
snuff box, sword, flag, Victrola, toy, bottle, button, drum,
store sign, document is catalogued and stored.

Every chair, school desk, table, lamp, wedding gown, map, snuff box, sword, flag, Victrola, toy, bottle, button, drum, store sign, document is catalogued and stored. Imagine just going through your attic—or even junk drawer—and cataloging everything in it. But that is what happens with every item or collection donated to the Augusta Museum of History.

Right now hundreds of bottles manufactured in Augusta during the 19th and 20th centuries cover a table in one of the storage rooms. All of these bottles were collected over a lifetime by Bill Baab, longtime fishing writer for The Augusta Chronicle.  He salvaged them from demolished buildings, dug them out of the mud at the river and canal, scavenged through old trash piles. He has donated this amazing personal collection to the museum.

Now an intern photographs every bottle, assigns each a number, pastes the number on the base, enters relevant historical information on each into a data base and then, when all this is done, the collection, or parts of it, will go on display.

Another huge task of cataloging and preserving right now involves the Fitz-Symms Photography collection of a quarter-million negatives from the 1940s to the 1980s.  Many of these photos have historical significance, documenting the tremendous physical changes Augusta experienced when it turned into a boomtown after World War II. Many of the negatives are aerial photos the late Morgan Fitz took while hanging out of an airplane over Augusta. All the negatives must be scanned and cataloged. It’s slow, labor-intensive work. “This is part of what our fundraising pays for: the technological equipment to do it and the person who sits there at the machine,” Glaser says. The machine she refers to not only scans the negatives but flips them into positives.

Such technology has been made possible by support from foundations: Creel-Harison Foundation, CSRA Community Foundation and the Knox Foundation. A new interactive map that makes visitors to museum exhibits aware of related sites outside the museum, such as the Petersburg boat rides on the canal or tours of the Woodrow Wilson House, Meadow Garden, etc., was funded by a Tourism Grant.

Digital technology will play an increasingly important role in the museum’s future. “A lot of the Fitz-Symms collection is now accessible to the public on our website,” Glaser says. “You know, lots of people won’t ever come to these walls. So how can we share with them? We need to make our 1 million items accessible online.
“All it will take,” she says with a patient smile, “is time and money.”

Advertisement