Liberty Students Collaborate With Friends of New London to Share Local History
There’s London, England, a well-known city steeped in history. Then, there’s New London, a former town near Lynchburg, which is obscure in comparison to its English counterpart but matches its rich and abundant history.
On Saturday, Oct. 2, Friends of New London and Liberty University celebrated New London Day, an event dedicated to the preservation and recognition of New London history, local and beyond.
The event centered around several buildings on Alum Springs Road and included Mead’s Tavern, the Bedford Alum Springs Hotel and the African American Methodist Church, among other reenactments and exhibits.
Attendees had the opportunity to pick up pamphlets that helped contextualize each stop along the self-guided tour. They heard live music, ate lunch at a food truck and listened to students – some in full period costumes – and experts at different spots. Signs along the road summarized the importance of each location.
One such location was Mead’s Tavern — unassuming from the outside, but it preserves years of history on the inside. The still intact brick wall in the basement is Virginia’s oldest wall of its kind west of Richmond, according to the New London Day event webpage. The Tavern was originally an important cultural center for travelers and settlers to gather and share news. In later years, the building functioned on different occasions as a girls’ school, a doctor’s office, an insurance office and a private residence before it was purchased by Liberty in 2015.
The inside of the Tavern is an eclectic mix of old and new. The building was modernized to accommodate a private residence, Liberty has peeled back many of the modern layers and are hard at work preserving the original elements. At the event, students led guests through the Tavern, explaining the significance of each stage of the building.
According to psychology student and history guide Clara Koniver, the building was once considered the largest of its kind in New London.
“It was the only two-story building in New London when it was built, and it is the only building here from the colonial period,” she said. “It has original hand-hewn beams, which means that no machinery was used to make it.”
Just down the road, secluded within groves of trees behind a long driveway, sits the Bedford Alum Springs Hotel, whose history was also shared through student explanations and interpretations. Sunlight poured through the trees and lit up the rooms inside the hotel, many of which still boast polished wooden floors and chandeliers dangling from the ceiling.
This building dates back to the early 1900s, but the property’s history extends long before that as a home to several colonial-era structures and the suspected location of a continental arsenal.
Graduate student assistant Grace Hoisington explained that during the late 1800s, the hotel (once a resort) drew in the affluent because of its proximity to springs that were believed to have healing and medicinal properties.
“This was a high-society destination,” Hoisington said. “At the time, health resorts were a restorative place to stay over the summer months. People from Richmond, Atlanta … [and other places] across the post-war South would come here to stay for months at a time.”
The property went through tough times — fires destroyed some of the buildings, and it sat vacant for years before becoming a private residence in the 1930s, according to Liberty’s webpage for New London Day — but that did not stop it from attracting some of society’s most influential individuals.
“According to oral tradition, there were silent film stars that stayed on the property,” Hoisington said. “[But] it’s not confirmed.”
In 2018, Liberty bought the property and is currently using it for “archaeological, architectural, and landscape investigation,” according to New London Projects page on Liberty’s website.
Another spot on the tour was an African American Methodist church. Freedman Andrew Holt donated the property for the church in 1851; however, the current building is the third on the property and was constructed in 1930. The church represented the black community of New London and was important to their lives as a place they could worship as they sought freedom from slavery and pursued their rights as American citizens. It was actively used until the 1990s, according to signs posted during the event.
For Liberty students, especially those studying history and other related fields, the annual event was a chance to collaborate with each other to produce a public history event. They were also able to educate themselves and the community on the hundreds of stories that sit, waiting to be discovered, only 10 minutes away from where they take their classes.
“For the public history students in general … New London Day gives them a hands-on opportunity to learn about objects and artifacts from history, about how to develop a tour, how to create an exhibit [and] how to do good historical interpretation,” Donna Donald, director of public history initiatives, said. “It also gives them an opportunity to work directly with members of the community—something we don’t get when we’re just in the classroom.”
However, participation was not limited to history students only, as students from multiple departments helped to make New London Day possible. Fashion design students, for instance, helped create the costumes used during the day.
Donald also noted that there is an element of exclusivity to the event — opportunities that would normally not be available to the public.
“It gives you a chance to see a variety of different aspects of history in these buildings that we open on New London Day … they’re not like museums that are open every day,” Donald said. “It’s really your chance to get a look inside some of the historic buildings there and to learn from the community, and to see your fellow students in action.”
Most of all, Donald said that she felt grateful to Liberty as she was coordinating this event.
“The College of Arts and Sciences, the history department, [the] Center for Research and Scholarship – they’ve all been very supportive of this unique project, and we’re starting to see that it’s benefiting students … in other disciplines, and then really benefiting the community as well,” Donald said.
Smith is the A-section copy editor. Follow her on Twitter at @jssmith_jss.