By Bridget Manley, publisher
Nearly three years after archeologists discovered the Thomas Harrison House wasn’t actually the city founder’s home, officials still don’t know what to do with Harrisonburg’s oldest structure.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, city officials were having conversations with organizations about what potential next steps after Carole Nash, a JMU associate professor and director of the Shenandoah National Park Environmental Archaeology Program, presented her team’s findings to the city council in October 2018.
City officials had hoped to fully research the history of the building, which is near the intersection of Main and Bruce streets. And the city budget included money for converting it into a museum focusing on the life of Thomas Harrison, the town’s founder.
“That conversation was ongoing, and then COVID arrived,” city spokesman Michael Parks told The Citizen.
The city had planned to spend $1 million to restore and turn into a museum of the founder’s life, but Nash’s research discovered Harrison couldn’t have lived in the structure because it wasn’t even built until after his death.
Nash said when her team traced the age and origin of the structure’s timber and determined it was built after Harrison’s death, it raised more questions about who lived there and how to use the building to tell local history.
“It’s kind of hard to shock me as an archeologist,” Nash said of her findings. “One of the things about archeology…sometimes when you bring science to bare, it challenges what people believe to be true. So for me, putting those pieces of evidence together and figuring out that that wonderful house could not have been built by Thomas Harrison, much less that he could not have lived there, the question becomes then ‘why has it become so important that that house is associated with him?’”
Nash says she also wants to explore different aspects of the community’s origin story.
“My hope is that it opens up a much bigger conversation about what it was like here during that time period,” Nash said. “What did Thomas Harrison have in mind when he envisioned this town?”
It also raises questions about how the lots would have been divided and how the structures were built, she said.
Because it was along a north-south route, the town would have had wagon stops and places for people to stay overnight. How Harrison envisioned the town as a center of commerce is of particular importance to Nash.
“He came from a family that did that sort of thing,” Nash said. “They were landowners —not only here in the Valley, but they actually shifted from Delaware down into Maryland, and then down into Virginia. They established these crossroads, and these places.”
Amid the pandemic, the city put on hold some capital improvement projects on the back burner, including construction of the new high school (which is back in progress), renovations at Purcell Park and the conversations surrounding the Thomas Harrison House.
“As far as the city’s involvement in this project is concerned, it’s frozen in time,” Parks said. “There have been some very light discussions about how we get restarted in this process, but nothing in terms of how exactly we move forward.”
The economic ripple effects of the pandemic, which cost the city $6 million in revenue last year, have delayed those discussions.
“We are trying to restart some of those capital improvement projects,” Parks said.
The ‘Thomas Harrison Model Home’
Nash said that when she announced her team’s findings, many people wanted to know more about the full story of the home.
“There were some who were upset by the possibility that it might not be his house,” she said. “But it was overwhelming of the support that we got — from folks who were saying, ‘Well, if it wasn’t his, what is the story? What are we going to learn from this place?’”
Nash said while the home wasn’t built by Harrison, it was built to the specifications Harrison laid out for how the homes should be built in town.
“My off the cuff statement is that what we used to know about the Thomas Harrison House is actually the Thomas Harrison Model Home,” Nash said. “Being able to use it as a community center, being able to use it as a place of exhibits, being able to use it to help tell the story of Harrisonburg, is really important.”
Nash also said more work and research needs to be done to tell the story of an early free Black community in Harrisonburg, and the home can help to tell those stories as well.
“There is the story of enslavement associated with that house, and we’ve got a lot of work to do on that,” Nash said. “The archeological evidence is pointing to there being enslaved people who lived at that house. What does that tell us about early Harrisonburg?”
Questions remain about who will maintain and use the building. The city has worked in the past with partners, including Asbury Church and the Margaret Grattan Weaver Foundation.
“It’s difficult to say how we move forward, other than eventually we are going to need to come back together and start this conversation and see what we are capable of now,” Parks said.
A sign that hung outside the Thomas Harrison House disappeared last year, but Parks said city did not take it down and does not know who took the sign down or where it went.
“We are all dedicated to ensuring that the property is treated with respect and that we find a way to move forward to make sure that it is maintained, that is something that all of our Harrisonburg residents can learn from, certainly when it comes to the history of our city,” Parks said.
As for what people can learn about that history and the city’s early days, that’s where research and digging in the dirt will play a major role.
“That’s the beautiful thing about archeology,” Nash said. “It challenges, but it also opens doors onto things that you never imagined.”
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