As I walked into the Belhaven archives today, the familiar musty smell of old brown pages came to my nose. It always acts as a sort of intoxicant, filling my mind with thoughts of years which no-one remembers, books which have remained unopened for decades, thoughts of men and women lost in the abundance of words preserved across the world.
Today my eyes were drawn especially to the large Bibles on the back wall. I examined one of them, the Lemly family Bible—Bessy Lemly being an art professor who gave her name to the room in which the archives are now. The Bible is an immense and heavy tome, the cover a solid black with raised, elaborate gold floral designs spread across the binding and up and down the cracking spine. The date on the title page is 1874, and it boasts features such as commentary by six Bible scholars, nine hundred illustrations, the Apocrypha, a concordance, comprehensive Bible dictionary, and a concise history of all religious denominations. Magnificent engravings, including those by Gustave Dore, fill the pages and lend a dramatic air to the most casual of readings.
The most interesting and unique part of the volume, however, is the family portraits in the back. These are pages with four squares each wherein old photos are pasted. Only the first page has later annotations in pen. In one of the front squares there is a distinguished-looking old man, frowning thoughtfully, named Frances S. Smith; his costume seems to place him around the 1860s. Beside him is another portrait that appears possibly older: a young, intense man called Virginius Smith. The others have names are designated “Napoleon Smith,” a handsome, intelligent professional, and “Frank,” a man bearing a close resemblance to Napoleon but appearing older and milder in nature. Other portraits include that of a middle-aged woman in a voluminous black dress; an elderly lady in black, probably a widow, holding up a tiny Bible; a young, dashing fellow with a striped waistcoat, who looks like he could be Errol Flynn’s brother; and many of wide-eyed infants.
After indulging my imagination in hypothesizing lives and personalities for these people, I stumbled across a box of Kodak slide duplicates from the 1960s. Holding them up to the light, I saw various scenes of college life as it was fifty years ago. One shows a group of students, boys and girls uniformly in jeans and polo shirts. On another, a couple stands serenely on one of the Belhaven Lake docks, watching the white geese swim about below them. Others include photographs of scenes wherein a well-groomed and suited professor lectures a classroom of young ladies on the phonetic alphabet, using sample words such as “cold,” “ought,” and “cool”; a girl is constructing on a pile of books what is either alien-looking equipment for a science project or non-representational art that vaguely resembles the Eiffel Tower; in what appears to be the Helen White kitchen, an elderly lady instructs two female students with short, bouffant hair on how to clean the inside of a stove burner; young men, still smartly-dressed, lounge in bunk beds, reading, a film roll sitting casually on a nearby dresser.
Other matters draw my attention, and I return the slides to their place. Today I glimpsed two different eras, one belonging specially to the Lemly family and the other to Belhaven, and I left the archives with a sense of being better connected to my Belhaven heritage.
Rex Bradshaw is a senior history major at Belhaven University. Rex digs through the Belhaven archives for lesser-known facts and stories from Belhaven’s history.