October 9, 2020 : By Ryan Klinker - Office of Communications & Public Engagement
Following yet another year of digging up new clues to Central Virginia’s past, helping to restore and preserve buildings, and conducting research in the nearby historical town of New London, Liberty University students will showcase their latest discoveries and immerse guests in local history free of charge at this year’s New London Day on Oct. 17.
This year marks the fifth year that Liberty has partnered with Friends of New London, a local nonprofit historical society, to host the annual event since the university’s 2015 purchase of Mead’s Tavern, the oldest standing structure in the region dating back to 1763. The university is currently restoring the building with the help of architectural historians and its history students. Liberty also owns the site of the former Bedford Alum Springs Hotel, a large health resort in New London that marketed spring water once believed to have healing powers in the late 19th century. A Revolutionary War arsenal was also located on the estate property, and students have been participating in archaeological excavations at the site. The town is said to have been frequented by some well-known historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.
Liberty’s Director of Public History Initiatives, Donna Davis Donald, regularly brings her public history classes to the former colonial-era town, which serves as a lab for students to gain hands-on experience in research, archaeology, and historic preservation. During New London Day, students get to take an active role in sharing what they have learned.
“The students themselves are the ones who decide how to set up the tours, design the tour map for the day, all the activities, and the exhibits and the research involved in them,” Donald said. “We also have different groups from the School of Music who come in throughout the day to provide period music, and student volunteers come in and help coordinate or design signs.”
Donald said the annual event is a perfect opportunity for students to show how passionate they are about their community.
“It’s been a really great opportunity for the community to see this positive contribution from Liberty,” Donald said. “There are a lot of people in the community who are interested in their local history, and they love to come out and get a tour and see the buildings they drive by every day.”
Archaeology has been ongoing at both locations, and thousands of artifacts have been uncovered at both sites. Among the 18th century items are coins, pipes, and musket balls as well as domestic items such as thimbles, buttons, and ceramics, most of which are from Mead’s Tavern. They have also identified remains of buildings that lined the street that Mead’s Tavern and Alum Springs share, some of which point to the potential existence of a Continental arsenal in the town, as well as items such as bottles from the hotel that would have held its famous spring minerals.
The most unique of the recent discoveries, however, is a Native American spear point which archeologists have confirmed is over 5,000 years old.
An exhibit showcasing a large collection of items from World Wars I and II, owned by a Liberty graduate, will be on display for the third year, and there will also be an expanded encampment of Revolutionary-era reenactors as well as an artillery demonstration.
New London Day visitors are also invited to witness the ongoing archeological surveys, take tours of the properties with volunteers dressed in period attire, and enjoy a petting zoo and antique car show with food vendors available. Visitors will be advised on proper social distancing for the predominantly outdoor event.
“There’s a little bit of something for everyone at New London Day,” said Luke Dixon (’19), a graduate assistant in the Department of History. “New London is interesting because it has all eras of American history represented there, especially the 18th and 19th century and into the 20th century. When you get to see the artifacts, things that people really held in their hands and used on a daily basis, it brings the realism of the past to life. Oftentimes, there’s history that happens right in your backyard that people don’t know about, and it’s a great chance to make connections with the past.”
Much of the work done in Donald’s public history courses and at New London has been funded through ILLUMINATE Grants for the Improvement of Teaching from Liberty’s Center for Teaching Excellence, which provides faculty with funds to explore more creative and innovative learning concepts.
Through these hands-on learning opportunities, students gain knowledge from professionals in the field.
“All throughout the preparations for New London Day, students get to work with all kinds of different professional historians and historic preservation experts,” Dixon said. “From a practical sense, it’s a great way to equip current history students for future careers.”
Friends of New London is currently in the process of fundraising for the restoration of the New London Methodist Episcopal Church property, which is believed to be where black worshippers, both enslaved and free, gathered as early as the 1850s. According to Donald, the property once belonged to an emancipated man named Andrew Holt, who donated the plot of land for the church’s construction in 1852, and the current structure was built in 1930. New London Day visitors will be able to view the site and donate to the restoration.