CHARLES TOWN – Years before John Brown devoted himself to ending slavery and a decade before he set off for Jefferson County for his doomed raid on the armory at Harpers Ferry, he penned a letter detailing the challenges of making money in the wool industry.
That 1849 missive will go on display in Charles Town next week along with a letter from Brown’s son Jason just days after Brown’s execution in Charles Town, another by a Brown supporter in 1914 reflecting back on the famous events of 1859 and others from citizens who documented their reaction to the raid.
The temporary exhibit will debut at the Jefferson County Museum on Tuesday – exactly 159 years after the start of Brown’s attempt to seize the federal site and launch an uprising of the enslaved.
“These letters give visitors a number of different perspectives on John Brown,” explains Doug Perks, the museum’s historian and the person putting together the exhibit, which will remain on view until the museum closes to the public for the year in mid-December.
All the items are on loan from the Rev. Walter Riley of Wooster, Mass., a lifelong Civil War buff who has been collecting letters, books and other Brown-related memorabilia for more than three decades.
He’s also lending the museum a photo showing Brown’s daughter Ruth Brown Thompson and brothers Owen and Jason in California sometime before Owen’s death in early 1889.
Perks says he thrilled to be able to share some of Riley’s extensive collection with museum visitors. The two met in 2009 when Riley came to Charles Town for the 150th anniversary of Brown’s raid.
In the years since, Riley’s returned to the museum more than a dozen times. “I’d been to Gettysburg many times, but I’d never come to Harpers Ferry or to Charles Town,” he said. “The natural beauty of Harpers Ferry is what you notice first of course, but then there’s so much history. This is an incredible place.”
Riley said he found it incredible that at the museum he could stand in front of the actual wooden wagon that took Brown to the gallows. “You’re not supposed to touch it, but I had to,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that an artifact like this actually exists – even though the museum clearly is able to document that this was the wagon. I was just blown away to be able to see that.”
Riley said he’s delighted to have helped the museum create the exhibit, entitled “Brown Opened the Eyes of the World.”
“I’m very honored that Doug Perks wanted to use some of my letters for an exhibit – there’s no place I’d rather have these letters on display than in Charles Town,” he said.
Riley said he’s learned much about Brown in his discussions with Perks. He plans to return to the Eastern Panhandle in late October or early November and is looking forward to seeing the display for himself.
The museum – founded in 1965 – recently reached an important milestone by making its collection available online.
For the first time, Internet users anywhere can check out the museum’s vast collection of objects, images, documents and publications. The searchable online collection database is on the website at jeffcomuseumwv.pastperfectonline.com.
Museum officials say the online collection contains digital images of thousands of artifacts and photographs. In addition, visitors can learn about the unique collection of thousands of documents and publications, including business and legal records, correspondence, deeds and plats, maps, diaries, pamphlets, newspapers and school yearbooks.