July 16, 2015 : By Mitzi Bible - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
As Liberty University continues to construct academic, athletic, and recreational facilities, it has also added some old in with the new.
The university recently acquired an 18th-century building in the historic town of New London, located about 15 minutes from campus near the border of Bedford and Campbell counties along U.S. 460. Mead’s Tavern, built in 1763, was purchased from the local nonprofit organization Friends of New London, Virginia, Inc. (FNL), with which Liberty has formed a partnership to continue the restoration of what is believed to be the oldest structure in the Lynchburg region.
The building was used most recently as a private residence, but was originally an ordinary, or tavern, that provided meals and a night’s stay to travellers in the once-bustling town that predated the American Revolution and even the founding of the city of Lynchburg. With its location in the center of town and across from the courthouse, the building is believed to have attracted some well-known historical figures, including Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.
The town itself holds historical significance, as it was the county seat for Bedford County, which at the time encompassed all of Bedford and Campbell counties and the city of Lynchburg, as well as parts of Appomattox and Franklin counties. During the Revolutionary War, the town hosted one of only a handful of official Continental Army arsenals in the colonies; thousands of weapons and ammunition were made, repaired and stored there. For many people heading west, the town was the last stop before the Frontier. New London was also the scene of fighting in the Civil War, in 1864, during Hunter’s Raid in Central Virginia.
“This building is a really exciting piece of history — it’s not just an old place, but it’s an old place that was central to events in Central Virginia,” said Dr. Roger Schultz, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, who toured the building earlier this year with President Jerry Falwell and other members of administration to discuss how Liberty could partner with FNL.
Randy Lichtenberger, chairman of the Board of Directors for FNL and an expert in historical archaeology, said the group will work closely with Liberty in restoration, providing research and the results of archaeological surveys already conducted on the property. The group will have office space in the building to provide these resources and will support the opening of a public museum if one is created.
“We view Liberty’s purchase of the property as the beginning of a long-term collaboration to restore and interpret the structure,” he said. “It’s also an opportunity to advance our mission of researching and sharing the almost-lost story of New London, one of the most significant Revolutionary-era towns in Virginia.”
FNL purchased the property in 2012, but realized it needed a partner in the preservation effort to be able to continue its other research initiatives.
“Partnerships between museums and universities are a growing national trend in the preservation field,” Lichtenberger said, noting the relationship between the Historic Sandusky museum and Lynchburg College.
With the restoration project still in the early planning phases, Schultz said that as an educational institution, “Mead’s Tavern allows us to do more with our history curriculum; it will be a wonderful laboratory for history students.”
The project opens up many doors for Liberty’s Department of History, which is launching its first course in public history (making history useful and relevant to the public) this fall. Donna Davis Donald, assistant professor of history, received a university-sponsored Illuminate grant to pilot the introductory course, which will allow students to gain hands-on experience in areas such as historic preservation, museum management, archaeology, archival documentation, digital history, fundraising, and marketing. Students will be heavily involved in the New London project, working alongside FNL and restoration professionals.
“We’ve thought about public history for a long time, but this project kind of pushed us in that direction a little harder,” Donald said. “It’s a wonderful example of the ways in which the university can partner with local groups to promote projects that are of interest to the community. It’s not just about Liberty; it’s really about the Central Virginia area and historical awareness, helping to preserve it for posterity.”
Kenny Rowlette, director of The National Civil War Chaplains Museum at Liberty, said the purchase of Mead’s Tavern is another example of the university’s ongoing commitment to preserve local and national history.
“Going back to its purchase in 1985 of the old Academy of Music building (and recent donations to that project), to its support of the National Civil War Chaplains Museum, to its coming to the aid of the Dough Boy statue on Monument Terrace on two occasions, and to its support of the refurbishment of the Civil War cannon that now sits on top of the earthworks at Fort Early, Liberty University has certainly proven that it is interested in preserving history for the general public, as well as its students,” he said. “This partnership will benefit both our history majors and the public, and it shows that Liberty is truly a ‘good neighbor’ to Central Virginia and the nation.”
Dr. Cline Hall, a retired professor who spent 30 years in Liberty’s history department, agreed.
“The acquisition of this building is an excellent resource to teach our history students about historical research,” Hall said. “It will help as Liberty tries to develop students for public history careers as well as make a contribution to the local community.”
Dr. Mark Steinhoff, also a retired professor who taught history courses at Liberty for more than 30 years, said the new course is something the staff had dreamed about.
“This is encouraging evidence of the maturing of Liberty’s history program,” he said. “Public history is about cultural preservation. It is about reaching out to the audience, the whole population. It will take the program to new heights.”