Southern History Preserved in Herschel Street Museum; Curators Say Their Passion Is Accuracy and Helping the Past Come to Life for Visitors

By Maraghy, Mary | The Florida Times Union, August 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Southern History Preserved in Herschel Street Museum; Curators Say Their Passion Is Accuracy and Helping the Past Come to Life for Visitors


Maraghy, Mary, The Florida Times Union


Byline: MARY MARAGHY

One woman came searching for some of her ancestors who fought in the Civil War, only to discover three out of four were deserters.

"It's all about historical accuracy," said Ben Willingham, of Ortega, incoming board president of the Museum of Southern History, a 15-year-old non-profit corporation founded by G. Howard Bryant and other prominent Jacksonville businessmen. "Political correctness has destroyed history."

The 3,300-square-foot Herschel Street museum contains more than 1,500 artifacts valued at more than $3 million, according to curator Van Seagraves of Avondale, who said he dresses like a Confederate soldier for school tour groups and lets children taste tack - hard bread that soldiers ate. He also lets them shoot blanks from antique weapons behind the museum.

"Don't force-feed dates and times. History needs to be brought alive with people and stories, ancestors," Seagraves said. "History is going to offend someone. Sorry. I enjoy destroying myths and legends."

One museum visitor from Georgia, boasting about a relative who was a colonel, left deflated when she learned he wasn't a colonel after all.

The museum has about 8,000 visitors per year, Seagraves said, adding that the number of visitors and members has gone up about 10 percent in recent years. However, donations are down, Seagraves said.

Its collection started small in the insurance office of J. Guiles Patterson. In 1994, it moved to 4304 Herschel St., which was Chamblin Book Mine. Before that, it was a gas station.

Among the collection is one of Lincoln's burial flags, a copy of Nathan B. Forrest's Memphis speech and the shoulder boards, called epaulets, of Gen. Stonewall Jackson.

The museum is solely supported by its 200 members from throughout Jacksonville and Georgia. Membership gets you free admission and library access plus special speaker events.

The museum has rosters of federal troops on CD. With just a name, museum workers can find out information about those who served during the Civil War, where they were stationed and what battles they were involved in.

Willingham and Seagraves, both retired career military men, plus a half dozen history buffs who hang out at the museum, said there's tons of misinformation in history books. …

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