Group to celebrate house preservation

August 11, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

"There is, perhaps, no tract of country in the world more lovely than the Valley of the Shenandoah. There is, or rather I should say, there was, no prettier or more peaceful little village than Martinsburg, where I was born in 1844."

- From "Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison" by Belle Boyd

Bullets recovered from Civil War battlefields, arrowheads from early settlers, purses that women carried centuries ago and an 1860s-era prosthetic leg are a few of the quirky and solemn items on display at the Belle Boyd House on East Race Street in Martinsburg.

And, present of course, is an homage to Belle Boyd herself, a famous Confederate spy, murderer and actress who lived in the house nearly 150 years ago.

It's a far cry from what was inside the dilapidated house 10 years ago.

On Aug. 17, 1992, members of the Berkeley County Historical Society rescued the home from its fate - it was supposed to be turned into a parking lot.


To celebrate, Society members plan to hold a 10th-anniversary festival Saturday that will include Civil War re-enactors, food, tours, music and Belle Boyd - portrayed by an actress.

The celebration is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

At the home recently, Don Wood, president of the Historical Society and curator of the museum, offered a tour. He related Boyd's tale - from her inauspicious beginnings to the murder of a Yankee soldier to her life on the stage - nearly by rote.

Boyd was not constrained by 19th-century conservatism. She married three times, was expelled from school and spied for one of her loves, the Confederacy. She killed the Northern soldier after he insulted her mother and tried to take a Confederate flag that belonged to the Boyd family.

Boyd escaped, through charm and family connections, any serious punishment and became famous through opinionated newspaper articles.

After years under the lights and in front of an audience, Boyd died in Wisconsin in 1900, where she had gone for a recital. She was 56 years old.

"She never spent a dull moment," Wood said. "They say she slept with a pistol under her pillow."

Home deteriorates

Built in 1853, the Race Street home where Boyd spent some of her early years had been converted into four apartments around the turn of the century.

Time took its toll.

A decade ago, the inside of the home was more likely to contain rats than relics.

"It was dirty and so forth, there wasn't any question about that," Wood said.

City officials had condemned one of the upstairs apartments. A downstairs apartment, in which an elderly woman had lived for 43 years, had no hot water in the kitchen.

Wood, and others determined to preserve the home, saw beyond the shoddy exterior windowsills, a crumbled wall, the poor heating and cooling system and the filth.

What they could not envision was a way to pay for it all.

The owner of the home was willing to sell it for $85,000. The Society had $10,000.

After television stations and newspapers locally and in the Washington/Baltimore area picked up on the story, donations to preserve the home started trickling in.

The late Boyd Mason Jr. donated $20,000 for the down payment, and a bank financed the remaining $65,000. Society members spent another $100,000 restoring the home.

Since then, around 15,000 people have visited the home each year.

Store transformed

Boyd's father operated a general store adjacent to the house, which today carries a large selection of local history books. Copies of Boyd's book, "Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison," are available, as are reproductions of her portraits and other items.

Exhibits in the home are not devoted strictly to Boyd, although one should be certain to read the original letter she wrote to a cousin in which she extolled her own beauty.

What was the Boyd family kitchen now contains exhibits that are changed once a year. Currently, World War II uniforms, weapons and other items are on display.

Wood hopes to convert the upstairs archives center, which the Boyd slaves once called home, into a black history exhibit. The archives will be moved to an old brick house next door, which the Society bought in 1999 after making the last payment on the Belle Boyd House.

Wood grants a rare laugh when asked what he would say to Boyd, if he ever had the chance. He's never thought about it, he said.

An answer for why so many are enamored with a woman long dead comes more easily.

"To me, there's no question that she was a forerunner in women's liberation," he said. "She did what she wanted to."

Museum Hours

The Belle Boyd House, 126 E. Race St., Martinsburg, is open Monday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. During a Christmas celebration from Nov. 29 through Dec. 22, it will be open on Sundays as well, from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.

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