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Our heritage is our identity

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November 30, 2003|by Carol Gallant, President

To the editor:

Recently we learned of the destruction of the shell of a Washington family home in Locust Grove in Charles Town, W.Va., and the ensuing dismay. How quickly it happened. How surprising for many. Surely there should be a process or something. Yes.

A process took place regarding the decision by the Jefferson County Commission to demolish the jailhouse. As one of the citizens who started that process years ago - which led to the required historic review of that decision today - I would like to comment on true respect for history and the narrow, "practical" view of it that some still hold. A view that is a snapshot, not the big picture.

When I started a citizen action group - Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save Our Heritage (JCPASH) - in the wake of the jail demolition decision, the point was to create discussion on how an historic area copes with growth; ensure public input in decision-making; and recognize heritage as key to our county's unique character and economic health.


Well, doesn't that all sound grand. But what we got - despite the law and documentation - was four court hearings and a trivial rehash in much of the press of a clich argument about whether some old building was worth saving or not, and whether the jail building was even historic.

As a result, citizens didn't see the bulldozers coming at Locust Grove. Concerned people that might have filed papers or called JCPASH - to investigate and get the word out - didn't realize it was a heritage group, and that the jailhouse was their battle, too. For those who did read between the lines these 35 months of coverage, the jail issue was and is symbolic of the battle for Jefferson County's future, and who gets to decide it.

Now in 2003, we still see ignorance of or disdain for America's historic laws, and history is still viewed as dispensable. Oh yes, it is a priority, until it costs money and blocks "progress." How practical. This attitude leads to the precipitous destruction of unique sites without input from citizens or experts who could investigate alternatives and safety issues.

This is the role of a historic review. Without our court case on the jail, citizens would never have known that its architecture was by the famous Mullett firm and is good to last for 1,900 more years; that it is two-thirds a 1918 home; that the miners' treason trials in Charles Town were a crucial chapter in labor and American history. Amazing what a little elbow-grease research can teach you.

Now we'll never know what this destroyed history at Locust Grove could have meant to the county and generations to come. And while there are plans for a historic story marker and sketch, it's a hollow plan. If someone hands you a few leaves from a tree and a plaque with its name, you don't see a great oak or feel its presence.

This is in line with the misguided thinking that merely saving the facade of an historic building is saving history. We are not a Hollywood movie set; we are the real thing. This authenticity resonates with Americans who are weary of manufactured, or piecemeal history, and yearn for a reflection of their heritage and themselves that is not visible in "modern" sites and shiny plaques.

Now the bricks of the Washington house will be buried, along with its character, and people will play golf on a Civil War site. Fitting for the nation's most historic county? Responsible to the rest of the country? And, we had people at an insurance company somewhere make the decision and some unknown out-of-state owner who could care less.

It doesn't take a card-carrying preservationist to be concerned. Every citizen has a stake in this. Let's hope we all are learning, and teaching, that the past is prologue. Saving heritage is saving our identity as we grow, and our heritage is a vital part of America's story. We need to respect it.

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