A History of the Pittsylvania Historical Society

By Henry H. Mitchell, March 2004, updated August 2011.

Buddy Overbey and Tom Hardy at Callands Festival 1992

Buddy Overbey and Tom Hardy, members of the Pittsylvania Historical Society, at the 1992 Callands Festival.

DAR Beginnings

Since 1973, the Pittsylvania Historical Society has been a focal point of historical commemoration in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.

The organization was born of interest and activities leading up to the national bicentennial in 1976. The William Pitt Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution provided the initial idea, personnel, organization, and effort to bring it into existence.

Around 1973, the national DAR asked all chapters to develop a significant project for the 1976 bicentennial year. Liz Whitehead, regent of the William Pitt Chapter for 1974-1975, suggested the idea of a local historical society which could involve many who were not DAR members. William Pitt Chapter members were enthusiastic about the idea, and set about accomplishing the task. The members especially wanted an organization in which they could include their own husbands in their mutual historical interests.

The first meeting was held at the Pittsylvania County Courthouse on May 25, 1973, and the first memberships were for 1973-1974. The Pittsylvania Historical Society was officially chartered in 1976 through the efforts of Judge Langhorne Jones, Sr., and therefore the charter year was deemed to be 1975-1976, coinciding with the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the United States of America.

DAR member Marguerite Whitehead served as chairman of the first nominating committee. Among the first officers were DAR members Dixie Whitehead (vice-president), Mary Catherine Plaster (secretary, and also successor to Liz Whitehead as William Pitt regent), and Epps Perrow (treasurer). Lt. Col. Charles E. H. Jones (USAF, Ret.) was the first president of the society.

Research and Publications

The first emphasis of the new society was research and documentation of local history facts. Among the first meeting programs were a slide show on the history of Chatham's homes by Martha Dickerson, and a detailed discussion of the county's earliest roads by Maj. Neil Payne. Harriett and Douglas Whitehead led an effort of many society members in cataloguing the county's cemeteries, many of which are obscure, remote, and/or abandoned. Judge Langhorne Jones, Sr. painstakingly researched the early history of the county's public buildings. Madalene Fitzgerald focused attention on genealogical research, with a bicentennial-era emphasis on Pittsylvania's Revolutionary War soldiers.

The society's early concentration on documentation was based on superb local precedents. Maud Carter Clement, acknowledged by many as Virginia's greatest local historian, had created a large body of written work beginning in the 1920's. Frances Hallam Hurt, Madalene Vaden Fitzgerald, and others involved in both the county and national bicentennial commemorations, had also published significant works.

The society today is publisher of reprinted works from these sources, including Clement's History of Pittsylvania County (1929), Hurt's Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County (1967) and An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County (1976), and Fitzgerald's Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past (1974). The society has also published in the same tradition Footprints from the Old Survey Books of Halifax and Pittsylvania Counties (1989) by Roger C. Dodson. The society's influence in this area of activity has been quite significant, in that numerous other society members have also written books on history-related topics which have enriched the culture of the county and nation. Of especial local note are Herman Melton's several books on industrial and political history of Pittsylvania County.

Society members (and presidents) Neil and Lucille Payne created and edited a quarterly journal for the society, entitled The Quill Pen. The first issue was published in August 1982. The Paynes continued with The Quill Pen until May 1991. The name was changed to The Pittsylvania Packet in August 1991, and continues today with a circulation of over 400 member-subscribers. Editors since 1991 have included Herman Melton, Preston Moses, Lisa Mullis, Lindy Conner, and Sarah Mitchell.

Historical Buildings

Along with the William Pitt Chapter of DAR, also instrumental in the beginning of the society were members of local garden clubs, especially the Chatham Garden Club (which had also been founded many years earlier as a project of the William Pitt Chapter). The Chatham Garden Club had been very active in the commemoration of the 1967 Pittsylvania County bicentennial, and had restored the colonial-era clerk's office at Callands, which was given to the county by Landon E. Oakes and J. Clyde Oakes. That accomplishment set a precedent and a literal stage for later historical society restoration and activities at the old county seat location.

During the 1976 national bicentennial, the Bicentennial Committee organized the restoration of the 18th-century Yates Tavern at Gretna. Noteworthy funding for restoration was given by the DeWitt Wallace Foundation and the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors; the Yates Tavern property itself was donated by Nannie Bennett Cocke. After the conclusion of the bicentennial activities, ongoing responsibility for the Tavern was taken by the Pittsylvania Historical Society. Virginia Hunt took especial interest in the utilization of the building in public and community events.

Soon after the society's founding, it took on two other very significant building projects: first, the stabilization and restoration of the early courthouse building at Callands, given to the county by the Stegall family; and second, the reconstruction and restoration of the 1813 clerk's office in Chatham. The 1813 clerk's office is now the official “home” of the society, the location of most of its meetings and of its museum. (The remarkable artifact collection of the Rawley Martin Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy became the nucleus for the Historical Society's museum soon after the society's founding.) Paul Harold personally supervised the reconstruction and restoration efforts on both of the buildings.

The museum's collection has significantly expanded in scope, thanks to the gifts of many, to include artifacts from prehistory through the early 20th century. Included in the museum display is a set of dioramas depicting Gen. Greene's “Race to the Dan” in the last days of the American Revolution. Society members Frances Hurt and Blanche Crews designed and constructed the dioramas, with much volunteer assistance from the society and community. The museum first occupied space on the second floor of the Tredway-Whitehead House (Town Hall), but was moved to the adjacent 1813 clerk's office upon its restoration.

Numerous other projects involving historic buildings have been undertaken, including assisting in the documenting of structures for National Register of Historic Places and Virginia Historical Register status; sponsoring roadside historical markers (commemorating places, people, and events of Pittsylvania's past), and moving a tobacco barn to Chatham's Frances Hurt Park (that project headed by Fuller Motley).

In 1987, due in significant part to research by society members Judge Langhorne Jones, Sr. and Herman Melton, the Pittsylvania County Courthouse was designated a National Historic Landmark, one of five buildings chosen for that designation by the U. S. Constitutional Bicentennial Commission. The site was recognized in honor of the fact that it provided the stage for one of America's first great civil rights victories, a result of events transpiring there in 1879 and culminating in the United States Supreme Court's decision Ex Parte Virginia.

The Pittsylvania Historical Society now is working toward its most ambitious building project so far, the stabilization and restoration of the Chatham railway station. Glenn Giles and others have collaborated with the Pittsylvania County Board of Supervisors to obtain title of the structure for the county. Funding efforts and restoration plans are ongoing, with an eye toward creating a museum there to honor Pittsylvania's military men and women.

Meetings and Events

The Pittsylvania Historical Society's quarterly meetings feature highly significant programs and speakers on county history, and along with the quarterly publication The Pittsylvania Packet provides continuity of communication among the membership. With the initiative of Mr. and Mrs. Fuller Motley, the summer meeting has become an annual picnic to highlight ongoing projects and encourage membership growth.

Every year since its beginning in 1980, under Pittsylvania Historical Society auspices, Mack Doss has organized an annual early-October festival at Callands. Variously known as the Callands Festival or the Callands Potpourri, the activity draws around 20,000 people each year for crafts, food, and historical reenactments. Held on the grounds of the Pittsylvania's original court buildings, and with the old courthouse and clerk's office restored and serving as festival space, the event is one of the region's major cultural events. Assisting Mack Doss every year in the success of the festival have been society board members Norman Amos and Virginia Chapin.

The society inherited a strong local tradition of historical events. Both the county (1967) and national (1976) bicentennials were celebrated heartily and seriously in Pittsylvania County. Of especial significance were Frances Hurt's musical stage productions Land of the Bright Leaf (1967) and The Shirtman and the Quaker (1976). Likewise, the bicentennial of the U. S. Constitution in 1987 was celebrated locally with Frances Hurt's All Men Shall Be Free, in which many society members took part. The society has often sponsored bus tours of historical locations throughout the county, and society members' research has often provided an informative foundation for house tours seasonally sponsored by other organizations.

In addition to initiating with funds and research several efforts to obtain roadside historical markers, the society has also hosted celebratory events for the placement of the markers. These commemorations have included ceremonies honoring Gov. Claude A. Swanson, rail pioneer Whitmell P. Tunstall, the civil rights victory involving the Pittsylvania County Courthouse, and the 1728 expedition and interactions of Col. William Byrd II and his Saponi guide Ned Bearskin.

Pittsylvania Historical Society members, under the auspices of the Chatham Beautification Committee and with the leadership of long-time society vice-president Frances Hurt, have also been instrumental in establishing and conducting the annual Christmas in Historic Chatham festival, funds from which have contributed toward the restoration of the Town Hall property.

Notable Names

Thousands of local citizens have generously contributed time and resources to the activities and missions of the Pittsylvania Historical Society. Following are partial lists of some of the individuals who have taken formal part in the organizational structure.

Historical Society presidents have included Lt. Col. Charles E. H. Jones, Paul Harold, Maj. Neil Payne (USA, Ret.), Lucille Payne, Henry Mitchell, Preston Moses, Herman Melton, Glenn Giles, Fuller Motley, Langhorne Jones, Jr., Kenyon Scott, Charles Strauss, and William Black.

Catherine Overbey has served almost from the beginning as a board member. Other officers and board members (besides the society's presidents) have included Elise Allen, Sharon Aly, Norman Amos, Jeannette Brown, Katherine Buck, Virginia Chapin, James "Mack" Doss, Madalene Fitzgerald, George Harper, Stephanie Hedge, Mollie Holmes, Frances Hurt, Langhorne Jones, Sr., Nelson Light, Jo Ann Lucas, Perry Mitchell, Sarah Mitchell, Hannah Orgain, Alice Overbey, Epps Perrow, Mary Catherine Plaster, Anne Richards, Ivelle Saunders, Chris Smith, Patrick Touart, Dixie Whitehead, Harriett Whitehead, Liz Whitehead, and Susan Worley.


Pittsylvania Historical Society Books
Available from the Sponsor

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Melton: Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Melton: Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Melton: Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications.