In the Beall-Dawson House, on the small landing between the kitchen and the dining room, stands an unassuming steamer trunk, circa 1880s, green and black with wood braces.  It is well-worn and used, but there are no outward hints that this trunk and its contents make up one of the more interesting, and in some ways mysterious, collections held by the Society. 

I use the word “collection” advisedly, because as far as we know, that’s what the contents consisted of: a deliberately created collection of personal objects and effects, owned by Bessie Rebecca Claggett of Barnesville.  Miss Claggett was born in 1881 (or 1883) and died around 1985, and lived most of her life in the home built by her father, a freed slave, on Old Hundred Road.  The trunk and its contents were acquired by a private individual after her death, then donated to the Historical Society.

Since I learned Miss Claggett’s story through the artifacts first and the records second, I’ll try to tell it that way too.  The steamer trunk’s shallow tray contained the following items: A woman’s suit jacket with rhinestone buttons.  A blue silk reticule, decorated with cut-steel beads.  A small Catholic prayer book, with the inscription “Alice Claggett 1913.”  An extremely battered Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, with many notations in a tidy hand.  A souvenir sewing kit from Luray Caverns, Virginia. A small key on a wooden spool ‘keychain.’  Two pieces of white lace trim.  Two novels, published in 1893 and 1909.  A 1914 edition of Marianna Wheeler’s Before the Baby Comes.  A checkbook for Germantown Bank, with stubs dating from 1950-1958.  A box of Rexall Remedies playing cards, used.  An empty tin box, a glass eye cup, a patented (1936) scissor/knife sharpener, a “Magic Glo” antenna amplifier in its original box.  Four silver and silk lampshades with beaded tassels.  One ceramic bookend/figure of Ramses II (as indicated by a German label on the bottom).  A newspaper clipping from 1949, with the headline “Ewing Lauds Dawson, Urges Race Problems Be Settled Gradually.” A 1938 souvenir calendar, courtesy the Reverend Benjamin Arnold.  A cardboard box containing a plastic fashion doll’s head, an empty bottle of “Florida Water,” two broken pairs of eyeglasses, and a Christmas gift tag inscribed “to Bessie from Mr. Russell.”  A package of correspondence, bills and receipts to and from Miss Bessie Claggett of Barnesville, mostly about family and financial matters.  A hand-written menu for a nine-course meal. And last but not least, a matted photograph of an unidentified woman, taken in a Washington, DC studio.

We knew that the trunk came from Miss Claggett’s estate, but little else. However, thanks to research donated to our library by descendants of the Claggett and Ambush families, some of the items in the trunk began to make sense. Charles E. Claggett married Edmonia Ambush in 1881, at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Barnesville. Both Charles and Edmonia were born into slavery. Barnesville historians say that Charles built his house, on an eleven acre farm off Old Hundred Road, around the time of his marriage.  The 1900 census lists Mr. Claggett, a plasterer, living in Barnesville with his wife and seven children. Bessie was the second child. Alice, whose name is written in the prayer book, was the youngest; she died in 1913. Miss Bessie Claggett inherited the house in which she was born, and though she may have worked and lived elsewhere as a cook for some years, papers found in the trunk indicate she was based in Barnesville for most of her life. 

Letter from Aunt Mary E. Claggett, 1934

A 1978 article in the Washington Post, about Miss Claggett (then in her late 90s) getting a grant to help restore her historic but decaying house, quotes her lawyer: “She’s very intelligent and very opinionated.”  But it says nothing else about her personal life, and factual records can only tell us so much.  What remains for us to study is this collection of items.  BUT, before I let my fancy run away with me (as I so often do), who made the collection?  Some of the items – like the prayer book, the key, the small box of keepsakes – would appear to be special, but then there’s the knife sharpener.  What if what seems to be a woman’s trunk of keepsakes is nothing more than the leftovers of a post-funeral clear-out?  On the whole, though, I’m inclined to think that most of the items in the trunk were put there – or at least saved somewhere – deliberately, by Miss Claggett. Maybe the antenna aerial was a present from a relative or neighbor, valued more for the sentiment than for practical use. Who am I to say what can or cannot be held dear?

Think about your own Saved Things. You know what they mean to you, but what would someone else make of them?  Do you leave explanatory notes for posterity?  (Curator’s aside: explanatory notes are very helpful, please consider them.)  Now look at Miss Claggett’s collection. What do the artifacts tell us individually, and what is the difference if you take them as part of a whole? (And what if some pieces are missing? There was a lot more room in the trunk.) What stories can you weave from these things – or are there only questions?  

To Bessie from Mr. Russell

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