Richard Smith, Contributing writer
Saturday, February 11 marked the premier of Salem Museum’s “At Home Along the Great Road: Oldcastle and Preston Place.” Housed in the museum’s main gallery, the exhibit attracted many history-savvy Salem residents upon its debut. The event was casual and many informal conversations about Salem, among other things, were to be had among old friends.
The exhibit, curated by Assistant Director Alex Burke, featured many cultural items dating from the 1800s – from muskets to old photographs and from an old sewing machine to an ornate silver teapot. The artifacts were selected primarily from two distinguished buildings of Salem’s past: Preston Place, previously owned by the Preston family, and Oldcastle, previously owned by the Griffin family.
“It’s such an important part of Salem’s history,” said Burke, a Salem resident and class of 2016 Roanoke College graduate. Oldcastle, Burke stated, was originally built to house the Roanoke Navigation Company. Plans for a canal went under after the dawn of railroads, and Oldcastle was instead bought by the Griffin family as lodging. Yet the example of Oldcastle as a sample of old Salem’s tenacity remains. “They were trying, trying, trying to make this community work, especially back in the early 1800s. We weren’t struggling by any means… but we weren’t what we were today,” continued Burke. “It’s just that expansion of us growing, trying to get into a bigger role.”
Preston Place, on the other hand, is believed to be the oldest standing residence in Salem, being built in 1821. Several family items from Preston Place survive – notebooks, chairs and even a photo of Abraham Lincoln! And while Oldcastle was torn down in the 1930s, family members descended from the Griffins managed to save a few artifacts – a large piece of quartz crystal and pieces of the floor, among other things. Now, so many years later, these items have made their way to Salem’s museum.
“The Salem Museum tells the story of Salem’s history from before its founding in 1802 until present day. So that’s a history that goes back a hundred years before Roanoke was really on the map,” said Fran Ferguson, Executive Director of the Salem Museum and Salem resident. Yet beyond the general history of the town, the exhibit also attempts to tell the family histories of the Griffins and the Prestons. A narrative can be constructed out of the surviving artifacts – one strikingly different from the modern lifestyle we enjoy today. Ferguson said: “For students and children to see what life was like before there were cellphones, before there was electricity, before running water and indoor toilets – it was an entirely different way of living, and it takes coming to visit a museum to see those artifacts to really understand what it was like back then.”
Donations were important for the museum to acquire several of their display pieces. Items were donated by various people or were acquired by means of donated funds. Preston Place itself was acquired by the Salem Historical Society after the passing of Dr. Esther Brown in 2011. The building has since been refurbished and is now being leased to White Oak Tea Tavern. On the other hand, the lot Oldcastle once stood upon now belongs to Salem VA Credit Union, a generous sponsor to the exhibit.
The exhibit will be open until March 25 and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, free of charge to the general public. You can also check out the Salem Museum on Facebook for a look at a few of the items on display. For a first-hand look at Salem’s past, come check out the exhibit!