By Diana Mazzella
While he is surrounded by words, John Cuthbert has numbers on his mind.
30: The dollar amount of Stonewall Jackson’s last purchase – a lifetime membership in a Bible society.
3,000: The approximate number of annual visitors to the West Virginia and Regional History Center at the West Virginia University Libraries.
250,000: The number of original photographs held in the collection.
647: The very first number he met in the collection – the number of antique aluminum records holding authentic Appalachian music that he transcribed into musical notation.
Cuthbert is curator of the equivalent of West Virginia’s attic, where the property of governors mingles with that of nobodies. But there really isn’t such a thing as a nobody on the sixth floor of the Wise Library in Morgantown where the inquiries and life stories of all are welcome.
You might seek out the Center when researching your own genealogy or our nation’s brightest diamonds.
You can find a telegram from Abraham Lincoln that urges the governor of the Restored Government of Virginia – the loyalists who would form West Virginia – to “make haste slowly’ on his plans.
There’s more, endlessly so:
A reporter’s sketches from John Brown’s raid.
All four of Shakespeare’s “Folio” editions.
George Washington’s 1781 surveyor’s compass.
Notes from the man who discovered fingerprints as an investigative tool.
More than 600 works and memorabilia relating to sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov.
Original drafts of speeches by Pearl Buck.
A journal from an officer of the all-black regiment featured in the Civil War film “Glory.”
It never seems to end and leads to the question, “Why does WVU have all of this?”
Partly because we have friends – and friends of friends – who entrusted the valuables in their attics to us. Also, the state lacks a historical society comparable to that found in other states.
“The lack of a state historical society with a facility, staff and a comprehensive collecting mission has led us to, by default, end up with a lot of the most unbelievable treasures in the state,” Cuthbert said.
As he thinks about these treasures daily, he’s discovered a truth that those outside and inside the state typically miss. West Virginia is not a foreign hollow hidden in homogenous America, the keeper of the peculiar ways of an Appalachian island.
“They made apple butter in Boston, and they sang ‘Barbara Allen,’” Cuthbert said. “They just did it longer here. It took longer for older traditions to be wiped out here.
“West Virginia’s heritage is America’s heritage.”
Flannery O’Connor and a hurricane in New York
Carole Harris was only going to take a few days to sift through journals in West Virginia. But Hurricane Sandy had other ideas.
The City University of New York professor used the time the hurricane granted her by keeping her from returning to Brooklyn to thoroughly explore the 60 boxes of writings of Maryat Lee, a playwright and artist, in the WVU collection.
In the 1990s after Lee died, associate curator Michael Ridderbusch carted the boxes by truck from Lewisburg to Morgantown. In the boxes, among Lee’s life's work, were depictions of the friendship between Lee and author Flannery O’Connor.
Harris had found references to those 60 boxes in a few O’Connor biographies. But you can probably count on two hands the number of researchers who have looked through Lee’s boxes.
Harris found journals that told of Lee’s first meeting with O’Connor, the influence each had on the other and Lee’s coping after O’Connor’s early death from lupus.
And in going through Lee’s effects – a blue robe she wore during plays she oversaw in West Virginia, black and white childhood photographs, and drafts of her plays written with the youth of New York – she discovered much more about Lee and her times.
Some of Harris’ other research has been solely online.
“It was so different,” she said. “It felt so less thrilling than to have that notebook, the primary object, in your hands.
“I’ve never done research where I was like a real scout.”
That thought could be echoed by Elaine Treharne, a Florida State University professor who discovered an original 16th-century romantic poem written by a noblewoman in Queen Elizabeth’s court. Her discovery was on that same sixth floor of the WVU library in the Rare Book Room.
Even representatives from the Smithsonian Institution have been to the collection to verify a set of Plains Indians ledger drawings depicting the life of Sitting Bull.
The scribe of West Virginia
Every year, for 50 years, John Stealey has visited the WVU Libraries. And if any one person has a chance of seeing nearly everything there is to see about West Virginia history there, it’s him.
“These are broad statements, but it may be the most unique and valuable resource that West Virginia University has,” Stealey said.
Stealey, a retired professor of history at Shepherd University, spent 40 years on his most recent book on West Virginia statehood – West Virginia’s Civil War Era Constitution: Loyal Revolution, Confederate Counter-Revolution, and the Convention of 1872 – and 90 percent of that information was from the West Virginia and Regional History Center.
“Any work on the Civil War could not be done without that collection,” he said.
Across the backdrop of history, he’s found the personal stories, too.
There’s the letter Gov. Francis H. Pierpont wrote to a congressman from Kingwood. The angry message included a large drawing of a copperhead snake in derision of the congressman’s views, which went against Pierpont’s sentiments that Confederate politicians should be forgiven.
Delegate, and later congressman, John J. Davis wrote letters to his wife explaining his loyalty to the Union as West Virginia began to form.
A Morgantown woman describes in a letter how the Confederate Jones’ Raid attacked Morgantown, raising the Confederate flag over the courthouse, stealing horses and breaking into homes.
“You can find financial matters, you can find personal likes, dislikes, there are a lot of letters between men and women, and you can use your imagination,” Stealey said.
Fifty years ago, Stealey was writing his dissertation on the salt industry in the Great Kanawha Valley during the antebellum period. He was exploring slavery’s history inside industry instead of the more widespread agriculture. He asked his professor about the topic.
And the professor said: “Why don’t you go over to the West Virginia Collection and see what you can find out?”
He’s still finding it.
Visit the West Virginia and Regional History Center from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Sundays, or go online to view several electronic portions of the collection at http://wvrhc.lib.wvu.edu/.