The lamp memorializing Joe White, recently installed in front of Chatham's Town Hall, is new, but the origin of its design goes back to White's first days as Chatham's lamplighter two decades ago.
Chatham resident Henry Mitchell says that when town employee Joe White began lighting the Christmas lamps back during the 1980's, Mitchell had recently completed two series of etchings of street scenes of New Orleans and Charleston.
“Joe went about lighting those lamps just like he did everything else. He had a quiet and efficient way. There was a rhythm to it. I'm sure he didn't mean to make pageantry of it, but he did. If he could have been seen by a wide audience, as in a tourist-packed place like New Orleans or Charleston, he would have become world-famous.”
Mitchell and others began snapping photos of White at work tending the Chatham Christmas lamps. “Christmas in Colonial Chatham became a significant tradition here, but Chatham is small, and tourism and publicity are somewhat limited. So the word about Joe, and pictures of Joe, pretty much stayed right here,” recalls Mitchell.
White continued year after year to work faithfully, morning and evening throughout the Christmas season to tend the festive kerosene lamps. “It seemed to me that for local folks, Joe and the lamps became a cherished Christmas tradition,” said Mitchell. “Each year there was good area coverage about Chatham's Christmas events and schedules in the media, but I kept thinking all that time about how we could get more focus on Joe.”
In early 2002 Mitchell posted an article, “Joe White: Chatham's Christmas Lamplighter,” including several photographs, on his family's ChathamGuide.com website. When the Joe White webpage was picked up by internet search engines, the page became heavily visited.
“By Christmas 2002, we were receiving e-mail messages from folks at some distance, who just wanted to come to Chatham and watch Joe light the lamps,” says Mitchell. “They were telling me that Joe was probably the only official town lamplighter in the entire U. S., and best I could find out, they were right.
“The interest in Joe White as town lamplighter continued to build throughout the next year. I was excited to see what new recognition might come his way during Christmas 2003. It was heartbreaking when he became ill, and passed away in November.”
Immediately upon hearing of White's death in November 2003, Mitchell provided Frances Hurt, founder of Chatham's annual Christmas celebration, with a small silhouette of Joe, lighting a lamp. “I thought it might be needed for a logo or illustration for the 2003 Christmas events, our first without Joe.”
After Christmas 2003, Mrs. Hurt asked Mitchell to research the idea of a public memorial to Joe White in downtown Chatham. Hurt and Mitchell, along with Reba Motley (who had led an effort to get an especially suitable monument for White's grave), explored several possibilities. “We looked into a large three-dimensional outdoor sculpture, and then a wall-mounted plaque. Nothing seemed quite right. Then Mrs. Hurt suggested a lamppost, and asked if that same silhouette could somehow be built into the design.”
“That took some re-thinking for me,” says Mitchell. “Originally, I did that silhouette so it could be printed in a very small scale, on stationery or in a news article. But we tried several different sizes, and settled on about two-thirds life size, mounted under an overarching crook, with the silhouette reaching out to touch an actual kerosene lantern.”
“After I drew up the final design, we went to Lewis Turner at Danville Wrought Iron, and asked if he could turn the drawing into reality. He readily agreed to work on it, although he had never done anything like it before.”
“Lewis soon gave us a thumbs-up and an estimate on its cost. The Chatham First organization was enthusiastic, and offered to sponsor and guarantee the fund-raising, so Mr. Turner could start to work on the project.”
“Then the Pittsylvania Historical Society also chipped in generously, and Chatham's Town Council authorized the placement in front of Town Hall.”
Several newspaper articles featured the proposal, and during the festivities on opening night of Christmas in Historic Chatham 2004, an image of the proposed memorial lamppost was projected onto the front of the Pittsylvania County Courthouse.
“There was a such a large response in donations that the fund went over the goal,” says Mitchell. “Then the sponsoring organizations asked Mr. Turner to re-work the design to electrify the kerosene lamp, so it could become the main lamp at the entrance walk to Town Hall.”
“Lewis Turner will tell you that the construction of this one-of-a-kind design has not been easy. The various parts have to come from different suppliers, and getting them all to do it just right hasn't always worked on the first try! And Lewis himself had to 'invent' some parts, too. The most obvious example of that is how he electrified the kerosene lamp.”
The actual image of Joe White was made of heavy aluminum by a subcontractor in Pennsylvania, using Mitchell's drawing. A graphics firm in Lynchburg turned the drawing into a computer file which could be used to guide the machinery in precisely cutting the two-dimensional sculpture.
After completing construction of the memorial lamp, Turner coordinated its installation with Chatham's public works director Bob Hanson. Hanson removed a previous lamp from the front of Town Hall and switched the wiring over to accommodate the Joe White memorial.
Mitchell provided the artwork free of charge, and characterizes the cost of construction as “minimal, considering the time and effort Lewis Turner and his staff at Danville Wrought Iron had to put into it. This has been a labor of love for all concerned.”
Henry Mitchell and Lewis Turner both say their art always serves a practical purpose. Turner's firm is typically called upon for decorative rails and fences, security doors, and the like. Mitchell's art has usually been employed to tell a story or illustrate a point. Besides his already-mentioned etchings and several websites, he has illustrated many of his wife Patricia's hundred-plus books on food history. He also served as planetarium specialist for Pittsylvania County Schools for fifteen years, and many of the images projected on the local planetarium dome during that period were from his pen and camera.
In this collaborative effort, Mitchell's and Turner's work enhances the entrance walkway to Chatham's Town Hall, while telling the story of Joe White's service to the Chatham community.
“This memorial to Joe White is unique to Chatham, and countless people have come together to make it happen. It is the right thing to do, and it is a powerful symbol,” says Mitchell with satisfaction. “Joe did not have an easy life. But he lit thousands of lights, literally and figuratively, for others, throughout his life. He challenges all of us to do our very best.”
This website is sponsored by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House, Chatham, Virginia.
Copyright © 2005–2006 Patricia B. Mitchell.