Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Free Money!

Ok, so you're thinking to yourself, "I'd really like to make a contribution to Riddick's Folly, but I'm strapped for cash." We understand, and we've got a solution for you.

Go to GoodSearch.com and search the internet as you normally would. If you select Riddick's Folly as your charity, GoodSearch.com will donate about $0.01 to us every time you search for anything. You can add it to your web browser, make it your home page, anything you like. It costs us nothing, it costs you nothing, but we make money and you find what you were looking for -- everybody wins!

Now, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "How does a penny help Riddick's Folly? Can't you just find that under a couch cushion?"

Well, for starters, our couch cushions date to the 1840s, so if we found a penny, it would probably need to be on display as an exhibit (also, due to inflation, that penny would be worth roughly $0.25, beyond its collector's value). Besides, pennies add up. If we get just 100 people searching just twice a day, we could make more than $700 a year, and it's free.

File this under Better Late Than Never, but if you do your shopping through GoodSearch.com's sister site, GoodShop.com, we'll also receive a portion of that.

See? You can make that contribution after all.

GoodSearch: You Search...We Give!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Educating All The Way

"Christmas at Riddick's Folly" was our event. On Friday, December 5th, more than 150 visitors waited outside in the cold, some for more than an hour and a half, to witness our new program. Live holiday music from the Brass Choir of Old Dominion University entertained them, but the real treat waited within.

Each tour saw vignettes of the Riddicks, their friends, their slaves, and their house from 1860 through 1865. The talk of impending war, the optimistic belief that the war would last only a few months, the realization that war had changed everything, and the recognition of a new kind of freedom... these were the topics that filled the halls and walls of Riddick's Folly.

What struck us, as we read through our evaluation forms, is that no one was prepared for this kind of experience. Many said they expected a house tour, and a few were even disappointed that this wasn't just a house tour. But the real encouragement came when we began looking at the responses, and fully 100% found the event to be "very educational" or "somewhat educational." That's a home run in anyone's book.

It's easy to get wrapped up in details. Are these ornaments period appropriate? Would candles or oil lamps have been used here? What kinds of desserts would have been on this table? And though we tried to get as many details right as possible, we know we missed some. We know we cut some corners here and there to let our core issues shine through. Judging by the responses we got, I think we made the right decisions.

As easy as it is to get absorbed in minutia, it's also easy to forget that our primary function is education. There are 22 public schools in the City of Suffolk. There are private schools and home schooled groups as well, not to mention community colleges and vocational schools. Local churches, the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, the Suffolk Art League, and the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts also host educational programs of various stripes. All of these organizations and institutions are educating, and that's just in Suffolk.

All that education, but only 16% of 8th graders nationwide ranked "proficient" or above in U.S. History*. Clearly we still have work to do, but programs like this one mean we're heading in the right direction. Look for more to come.

*Data from the National Center for Education Statistics

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Big Tree

It was the Germans that came up with the idea of bringing a tree into the home at Christmas time, but its exact origins are unclear. Decorated trees could be found in cathedrals as far back as the 16th century, but in the United States, its emergence as a holiday standard did not come until the 19th century.

At first, table-top trees were in vogue. These could be just a few feet tall, but brilliantly decorated with fruits and berries, flowers, and candles. By the time of the Civil War, the Christmas tree was in the midst of an evolution into its current form -- the full tree standing in a room.

In the front parlor of Riddick's Folly, you will find such a tree now. A 12-foot monster, one of downtown Suffolk's largest indoor trees. True to the period, it has been decorated with ribbons, candles, and origami -- a new fashion from the Far East. What's off is the timing.

Ordinarily, trees were not brought into the house until Christmas Eve, December 24th. They would stay until Twelfth Night, the last night of Advent. We're a bit early in order to have the tree on display during our upcoming holiday program.

Here are some photos of our new tree.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A Proclamation of Thanksgiving

For most of us, the term "First Thanksgiving" evokes images of Pilgrims and Native Americans and turkeys. While the details of that meal may not be quite right, the sentiment is great. But the official day of Thanksgiving was not declared until 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War. Before an election year.

With no further pretext, enjoy his original proclamation below.

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward*,
Secretary of State

*Secretary of State William Seward is believed to have slept in Riddick's Folly earlier in 1863 following the "Siege of Suffolk."

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Christmas at Riddick's Folly

It's easy to take for granted what goes into a major reenactment, like our Christmas event on December 5th. Visitors see the final product, learn a little something, have a good time, and their whole experience takes less than an hour. The time spent producing such an event are numerous.

The costumes for our Christmas event have taken several hundred hours to produce, including several hems of more than 200 inches. The script for our event went through four drafts before the final version landed in the hands of our actors and actresses. The 12-foot Christmas tree that will stand in our front parlor will take about three hours to decorate, and that doesn't count the time spent decorating the rest of the museum.

Then there's the advertising -- writing copy, laying out print ads, updating a blog...

We haven't even gotten to a rehearsal yet, haven't discussed the research that went into the script in the first place, the fund raising to pay for everything, the time spent by volunteers cleaning, practicing, and organizing... even as I write this I'm realizing more and more of what's gone into this event.

But you're not interested in all that. Unless you are, in which case you should absolutely volunteer at Riddick's Folly. Anyway, the event takes place on Friday, December 5th from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm. Tickets are $3.50 per person, or just $5.00 per family. Come and see. Come and learn.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Grown-up children's programs

For several years, Riddick's Folly has offered children's programming focused on the American Girl book series. These programs exposed young girls to the life and lifestyles of their counterparts throughout American history. Now, after hundreds of girls learned lasting and meaningful lessons, Riddick's Folly bids adieu to the American Girl program.

This isn't to say that there will be no more children's programming at Riddick's Folly. On the contrary, next year's calendar has more children's events than ever before. The question is, if the American Girl programs were so popular and so successful, why change?

The reason is relevance. The mission of Riddick's Folly is to provide a tangible link to our community's history through the portrayal of the 19th century Riddick family home. While one or two of the American Girl characters fit rather nicely into our mission, most do not. And none, as you can imagine, are related to the Riddicks.

Instead, we've come up with a series of new programs tailored not just to young girls, but also to young boys, oft neglected by Riddick's Folly in previous years. These programs will be no less inspirational or substantial. Their relevance to our mission, and the variety of their content make them more impactful than anything we've tried before.

We start next year with a tea for the ladies, hosted by Mrs. Mary Taylor Riddick. She will entertain the ladies, teach them the history of tea, talk about life and literature of the early to mid-19th century, and allow plenty of time for socializing.

Mr. Mills Riddick hosts a similar session for young men with coffee and desserts, and a conversation about the roles of young men in the same time period.

In the summer, we offer a day-long experience for boys and girls exploring in greater detail the games, lessons, and lifestyles of boys and girls around the time of the Civil War. We hope to offer this as part of a rotating camp with the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, the Suffolk Art League, and the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

In the fall, boys and girls, and men and women alike will be invited to attend a mixed cotillion, the ultimate venue for learning "proper" social interactions with the opposite sex. We will give lessons during the day on 19th century dancing and etiquette, and in the evening, all are welcome to attend the cotillion to show what they have learned, and to enjoy each other's company.

We will also host an 1860s picnic for families. Period cooking techniques will be on display, and parents and children can enjoy the party atmosphere.

And for the braver children, Edgar Allan Poe will visit Riddick's Folly in October to tell some of his darkest tales in the spirit of Halloween.

So as we say goodbye to the American Girls, we welcome children back to Riddick's Folly to see more, do more, and learn more about their community's history in the 19th century.

Be sure to check out our website as our new events will be listed soon.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

We are all historians

When you work in history long enough, it becomes difficult to focus on current events and to evaluate them in a contemporary context. Every historian loves/lives to look at today's headlines and to compare them to those of the past, to see how a decision 200 years ago might have affected this or that. Last night, if just for a moment, we all became historians.

Senator Barack Obama was elected to the Presidency of the United States. An African-American was chosen for the highest office in the land, and we all witnessed it. Working in a building that was built by African-American slaves, paid for by their slave labor, and served by their unending domestic toil, I truly marveled at the sight. The contrast is simply amazing.

Non-profits get in trouble when they espouse political opinions, especially those that seem to endorse one candidate over another, so I won't do that here. I will say that the election represented a new level of maturity for all of us. We evaluated the merits of one candidate against another, and chose the man most qualified, not the man who most resembled us.

What does that mean for a house built when President-Elect Obama's ancestors were literally chained to one another? It means that the stories we tell here, and the lessons we offer about generations of slaveholders and slaves are all the more significant. We all become historians, and we all compare this new reality to our old one. When you see the laundry room, the kitchen, the low, plain, uncomfortable slave bed here at Riddick's Folly, you can now take solace that America demonstrated its ability to change, to self-correct, that America has made great strides in recovery from an illness that led to Civil War and Civil Rights.

Next spring, Riddick's Folly will host a traveling exhibit focusing on domestic servitude in the 19th century. We made arrangements to host this exhibit before last night, but after the election, we hope it will be all the more significant, poignant, and meaningful to those that see it.

In the meantime, like true historians, we look back. But maybe we can also, finally, look forward.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Mourning Judge Riddick

Our Victorian funeral and mourning reenactment began today. Here are some photographs.

The black wreath consists of painted magnolia leaves and twigs. Mourning "decorations" could be quite elaborate, but a staple was the black fabric (usually a silk-like material called crape) hung on the front door.

Juliana Riddick, sister of Judge Riddick, grieves for her brother. Juliana's dress is actually a dark green. She is portraying a woman in the latter stages of mourning when colors other than black could be introduced into a woman's clothing.

Missouri Riddick grieves for her husband. Although Missouri had already passed away at the time of Judge Riddick's death, she will be present during this event to portray the widow's mourning which was the deepest and most severe.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Bottom Line

Odds are good that you've reached this blog from our website (www.riddicksfolly.org, just in case you came to us another way). If you saw the website, you probably noticed the snazzy colors, sharp layout, and efficient interface. This is what friends are for.

The Addison Group, an advertising agency located in Suffolk, designed not only our new website, but also our new logo:

We're especially grateful to them, because this was purely an in-kind donation, and it's an indicator of how businesses can affect more than their own bottom line.

Some for-profit businesses have stockholders that make decisions. Others have Boards of Directors, and still others are just Mom and Pop, doing what they feel is best for the business. But they all have a bottom line -- profit -- that informs every decision, and that influences every action. How does this action make money?

Non-profits have lots of decision-makers, too. Boards of Directors, staff, volunteers, and even donors affect the direction of the organization. Their bottom line, though, is quite different. It's not about a financial profit, but about a social profit. How does this action make this community better?

What many in the for-profit and non-profit sectors don't realize is that these two bottom lines, these two questions, are not mutually exclusive. One can make money and make a community better at the same time. Likewise, one can improve a community, and not lose money doing it. In other words, "non-profit" ain't nothin' but a tax status.

Businesses such as The Addison Group have caught on, and even when the economy slips and budgets get cut, some still find time (and money) to do their part in their community. Riddick's Folly thanks The Addison Group. Now, Riddick's Folly is offering other businesses the chance to do their part.

This month, Riddick's Folly launched its new Business Partnership Program. This is an opportunity for businesses to use their resources to improve their community. As every good businessman knows, a better community yields better customers. By partnering with Riddick's Folly, businesses can receive benefits for their employees, recognition in Riddick's Folly's publicity and publications, but more importantly, businesses can see a tangible improvement in their community -- a return on their investment, as their bottom line would dictate.

But businesses are not the only ones who can improve their communities. Riddick's Folly's membership organization, the Friends of The Folly, is looking for new members, too. New benefits are available, as is public recognition for helping to make this community better.

What better bottom line could there possibly be?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


When the oldest child moves out of the house, the rest of the children usually fight over his/her room. If Riddick's Folly's various exhibits and purposes are children, this analogy quite nicely reflects what will happen in less than two weeks when the peanut exhibit comes down.

The room in which that exhibit currently resides was formerly the house's pantry and larder room. Its windows offer a street-level (literally!) view of Main Street and the sidewalk leading to the front steps of the house. That it has these windows makes it an optimal place for our gift shop, but an unusual place for a larder room.

Typically, the larder room, pantry, and kitchen all occupied separate buildings on the property. These buildings, along with a smokehouse, an ice house, and a root cellar made up most of the support facilities for life in the house. Mills Riddick's design for his house brought the kitchen, laundry room, and larder room all into his basement -- Riddick's Folly, indeed.

Of these, perhaps the larder room made the most sense. It required a cool place, such as a basement, and its proximity to the kitchen would have been convenient to be sure. The larder room takes its name from -- you guessed it -- lard. Meats would be partially cooked or smoked, and then stored in vats of lard to keep them until they were ready for final cooking and preparation. As it needed no fire for its operation, there was no risk of damage or destruction, at least from that. Such was obviously not the case for the kitchen, or even the laundry room for that matter.

The house's former kitchen houses the gift shop at the moment, but its lack of natural light and its unnatural ceiling (protruding in places with 20th century ductwork) make it more like a cave than a shop, certainly not the kind of place in which one would feel comfortable shopping. Its windows once looked out on the Riddick family's garden, and its close proximity to the family's smokehouse made the kitchen's location in the basement rather handy. When the family added on a side porch in the early 20th century, the kitchen's windows looked out on nothing but a wall, and the smokehouse was torn down. On top of this, the family constructed a new, modern kitchen as a separate wing on the rear of the building, just off the back parlor which was then used as a dining room.

It makes sense, then to relocate our gift shop to the former pantry/larder room/peanut gallery. Not only does the gift shop get a better location with windows, but we can now restore the period kitchen to make more complete our presentation of the Riddicks' 19th century home.

However, for the time being, that presentation will be a little light. So far we have only a dry sink and a jelly cupboard to fill the space, making interpretation akin to games of make-believe we play when we're younger (though it's too bad we stop playing them). We'll address this over time, sure, but the walls will be awfully bare for a while.

There is the matter of the smokehouse, but that's the subject of another post. Stay tuned.

Friday, August 8, 2008


We're well on our way to having the new, permanent Civil War exhibit installed. The cabinets are in place with fresh paint, and lighting will be installed in the next two weeks.

The exhibit will focus doubly on the military occupation of Suffolk. This won't just be the perspective of the Union soldiers stationed here, but also of the citizens of Suffolk who lived under military rule.

The citizens who stayed behind signed a document called the "Parole of Honor." This was essentially an agreement between the occupiers and the occupied that the former would not interfere in the affairs of the latter, so long as the latter made no attempt to overthrow the former.

Those citizens left behind were mostly women, children, and the elderly, all unable to serve in either army. We recently acquired an 1863 article from a Charleston, South Carolina newspaper talking about Suffolk, specifically mentioning the Riddicks. Newspaper articles such as this pair well with photographs of soldiers generously donated to us to provide an interesting counterpoint to the 100+ pieces of military hardware that otherwise dominate the exhibit.

In the meantime, we say goodbye to the peanut. For years, Riddick's Folly has been the home of Suffolk's only exhibit on peanuts. Given Suffolk's history with the legumes, an exhibit is certainly warranted, just not here.

On September 1st, the peanut exhibit will come down for good at Riddick's Folly as we focus on our mission to portray 19th century life through the lens of the Riddick family. Peanuts in Suffolk didn't become a phenomenon until the 20th century, and even then, that had little to do with the Riddicks and their descendants. If you'd like to see the Peanut exhibit, be sure to stop by while it's still around. In September, the items will go to their original owners where possible, and otherwise to the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Internal Affairs

First, we want to congratulate Lee King on his new title change. Mr. King has served as Assistant Director at Riddick's Folly for 17 years. In recognition of his long service and dedication, Mr. King is now the Curator of Riddick's Folly.

Second, we have to publicly acknowledge a disappointment. Last year, less than a penny of every dollar Riddick's Folly spent went to programs and services. This wasn't due to any scandal, and no money was wasted. This is merely a wake-up call, a time for us to consider our mission and the community we try to serve. We promise to do better.

Third, and finally, we received a number of bids to work on the sundry repairs and renovations Riddick's Folly needs. Unfortunately, none of these bids fell within the price range of the money allocated for this project, but some of our needs could likely be deferred, and we hope to begin work in the next few weeks. In that time, we'll maintain our normal operating hours, so don't be shy about coming to see us.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Reconstructing Reconstruction

The Riddicks were members of the planter class in the south, the dominant ruling class that influenced policy throughout the southern states before, during, and shortly after the Civil War. Their 76 slaves placed them among the larger slaveholders east of Richmond (though certainly not in the same league as some of the sprawling plantations of the Piedmont region of Virginia with hundreds of slave laborers). Therefore, the devastated agricultural industry resultant from the war and the emancipation of all 76 of those slaves meant a genuine economic struggle for the Riddicks.

Nathaniel Riddick, patriarch of the family during and after the war made his name in politics and through his law practice, so the protracted legal issues of Reconstruction most likely kept him busy, if not fiscally solvent. Still, in a town not known for its wealth or prosperity before the war, no less after it, how were the Riddicks able to maintain their lifestyle?

Immediately following the war, the southern states were divided into five military districts, each under martial law. As such, the comings and goings of nearly everyone -- citizen, freedman, and soldier -- involved passes, permissions, and paperwork of all stripes. Missouri Riddick, Nathaniel's wife, had to obtain special permission to search several freedmen's homes looking for stolen valuables. Her search took her as far as Portsmouth before she returned home with what she had been able to retrieve.

Aside from this one anecdote, we know precious little, and the archives of Riddick's Folly offer few answers. The correspondence we have from the years after the war is scant, and often silent on such matters as squatters who may have tried to claim Riddick land, vagrants who tried to take Riddick valuables through thievery and deception, and even the employment status of the male family members. We know little indeed.

This is an important story, intimately related to the Riddicks and the mission of Riddick's Folly. It is, for now, largely untold by the museum. Only further research will give us the answers we need, and even then we will have to draw conclusions from what we know of the circumstances of similar families or individuals.

Frustrating our efforts, the legal records from those years burned when the local courthouse burned in the late 19th century. We can only hope to uncover records from the capital in Richmond, or from some as-yet unfound stash of Riddick family letters and documents.

We hope to tell this story, but we want to make sure that we tell it correctly and without bias. This fall, new research will begin in earnest, guided in part by historians from Old Dominion University. This will be only the initial phase of a larger research project to better educate ourselves about this history. If you'd like to help with our research, please contact the museum office. Otherwise, stay tuned and we'll post more information soon.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Weapons of War

Secession set up the Civil War, but it was cannon fire that started it. The colonies didn't like Great Britain much (or at least some of the things GB was doing), but it wasn't until Lexington and Concord that it was a Revolution. It was an armada of Japanese bombers that brought the United States into the second World War, and it was two very big bombs that ended that war. Guns may or may not kill people (we'll leave that to the bumper sticker writers to decide), but the bullets sure do.

The American Civil War, by comparison with other civil wars in world history, was a relatively small affair. China's myriad rebellions in the same century took millions of lives, but our Civil War killed less than 700,000 (or slightly more depending on the source). Civilian casualties during the Russian Civil War exceeded 13 million, and that's before we start counting soldiers. And yet, in many ways, the American Civil War was more brutal than anything that had come before it.

Using battlefield tactics dating from the Napoleonic Wars, line after line of soldiers marched at line after line of other soldiers. When muskets were in use, this was an effective strategy because the weapons were horribly inaccurate unless at very close range. But then we found rifles.

The rifled musket added two things to the musket -- range and accuracy. Now, our line after line is getting picked apart from hundreds of yards away, but they continue to march forward into the leaden hail. Thus the casualties from the American Civil War exponentially grew as rifles replaced muskets. (Despite the new technology, disease remained the biggest killer in the war, but that's the subject of another post.)

In September, Riddick's Folly will install a new, permanent exhibit displaying more than a hundred weapons used in the Civil War. These pieces -- rifles, pistols, and swords -- trace the evolution of weapons engineering from the antebellum to Antietam to Appomatox. Come and check it out. It will be worth the trip.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

There's crape on the door

Judge Nathaniel Riddick died on December 30th, 1882, just two days before the new year. Judge Riddick was a prominent politician and lawyer in his time, and it was his home -- Riddick's Folly -- that served as headquarters to the Union Army during its occupation of Suffolk in the Civil War. His funeral, near the height of the Victorian era, was likely a grand affair to which the Who's-Who of the area would have been expected, if not obliged to attend.

126 years later, that event, which was as much public display as private mourning, may once again lead the community from the doors of Riddick's Folly to the unassuming tombstone where Judge Riddick rests forevermore.

We'd like to recreate that funeral as a way to educate our community about mourning practices in the late-19th century. Death and dying were both intimate experiences to be shared mainly with family prior to the Civil War. The war's legacy was an end to the "Good Death" -- dying at home in your bed surrounded by family. Later years yielded greater, more elaborate displays of grief perhaps as a reaction to the anonymous death that was the fate of many Civil War soldiers.

The current-day citizens of Suffolk would be invited to participate in the funeral of one of Suffolk's favorite sons, allowing them to not only learn about mourning customs of the time, but to also share a role in this living exhibit (if you'll forgive the pun). Of course, we want to be as respectful as possible to Judge Riddick's descendants, and those with whom we've spoken so far have been both appreciative of the interest and supportive of the idea. There's a lot of organizing to do, but we're well on our way. Keep reading for more information soon.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What's on tap for this year?

Every non-profit organization lives and dies by its programming. In fact, the fiscal responsibility of these organizations is commonly evaluated by how much of their funding is spent on programs that benefit the communities or groups that they serve. Museums are no different.

To be quite frank, Riddick's Folly's programming is somewhat lacking. Our annual History & Heritage Weekend is the most visible of our programs, and certainly the most involved. It spans two days, features a cast of more than a dozen reenactors and interpreters, and tells the Civil War story of Riddick's Folly in a more human way than any guided tour or video could. And yet, the other 363 days of the year (364 this Leap Year), we're left to scratch our heads and wonder what we're up to.

We host a series of American Girl events throughout the year. These events feature the characters from the popular American Girl book series (and yes, all of these should have little copyright logos next to them; maybe even a hyperlink... wouldn't that be nice?), and receive modest attendance. However, their relationship to the Riddick family and its history is, at times, a stretch. In June, we'll feature Kit, an American Girl story set during the Great Depression. Sure, some family members lived here during that time period, but our institutional mission limits our scope to the 19th century Riddick family home, and Kit missed that by about thirty years. The Felicity program this fall pre-dates the house by about seventy years, so we're not doing so well with this.

So, um, what is that we do exactly? We do offer guided tours of the museum, five days a week, and we're working to expand our offerings on that tour, but that still leaves a lot of calendar for some public outreach. Here are some ideas we've had.

We'd like to partner with our friends, the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society and the Suffolk Art League, to host a summer camp for young boys and girls. Essentially, we'd each offer a series of one-day camps and the children's parents could choose any or all of them for little Billy or Suzie (please, please, don't name your kids "Suzie"). For example, we could offer tea parties and sewing lessons or Civil War era military drill, while the art museum hosts various art lessons, and the historical society could do a hands-on show-and-tell with some of their unique items. Lots of possibilities here.

During the holidays, we'd offer candlelight tours of the museum and send out carolers in 19th century costumes through the surrounding neighborhoods.

We can host public concerts of period-appropriate music in partnership with the Virginia Symphony or local community music groups.

How about a cook-off using 19th century cooking techniques, tools, and food products? Tell me you wouldn't want to judge that contest.

With some of the rich family stories available to us, why not work with local theater groups to stage them? We could put on monthly or seasonal plays based on factual events and family stories. What was it like for the Riddicks to come back to their home after the Civil War and start life anew?

These are just some of the ideas we're working on, but your suggestions are welcome, too!

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Volunteer Training

Riddick's Folly is hosting a volunteer training session next Thursday, May 22nd from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm at the museum. If you or someone you know is interested in learning how the volunteer program works at Riddick's Folly, this is your chance. Please call the museum at (757) 934-1390 to let us know you're coming.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

For more than just horses

We call it a garage today. But before the horseless carriage, there was just the carriage, and for your carriage you had a carriage house.

The Riddicks had a carriage house. Indeed, most wealthy families in the 19th century would have. Because Riddick's Folly was their townhouse, the carriage house was likely only large enough for three or four carriages, plus the horses and the related tack. However, though horses may have been stabled in the carriage house, it was far more common for horses to occupy a separate barn, so this will take some research on our end. But even if horses did live there, they were not the only residents of the carriage house.

In many cases, the carriage house had living quarters on its second floor or attic for the servants (read: slaves, prior to the Civil War) who would tend to the animals and who would drive the carriages.

We don't know exactly when the Riddicks' carriage house was torn down. In all probability, it was in the early 20th century when carriages were bowing out in favor of their horseless successors. Nonetheless, the carriage house is gone now, save for a portion of its foundation still visible in a small ravine behind the house.

In trying to tell the Riddicks' story, there are a number of angles we're not covering. If you come to tour the home, you'll learn about Mills and Mary Taylor Riddick, their son Nathaniel, and his daughter Anna Mary. But those were just four of the dozens of inhabitants of Riddick's Folly, and their life here for nearly thirty years was made possible by slaves, and after that, by servants they would have employed to maintain the lifestyle to which they were accustomed. Our tour doesn't talk about the slaves very much. Save a mention here or there, slaves are in our tour what they were in the 1850s -- invisible.

To be quite bold, we want to rebuild the carriage house. This is the perfect environment to tell the story of the slaves who were kept separate from the family in nearly every way, including where they slept. While the female servants would have slept in the house on the top floor, the male servants lived in the attic/top floor of the carriage house. They may have had fairly nice accommodations as far as slaves go, but the bottom line is that their living space was directly above what amounted to a barn with all sorts of barn-like sounds and, shall we say, smells.

Rebuilding the carriage house offers all sorts of new challenges. The first, and most significant, is the construction itself. In theory, we could build on the remainder of the original foundation, but the stability of that foundation has not been investigated. Also, the City of Suffolk owns this building and all the land on which it sits, including the land on which the carriage house would rise. The City of Suffolk is very good to us, and we'd be remiss to imply otherwise, but any new construction would have to go through them. The second challenge is that we don't know exactly what the Riddicks' carriage house looked like. Judging from a few 19th century drawings, and the dimensions implied by the remaining foundation, we can make a pretty good educated guess at its size, but anything else is going to be speculation based on research of similar structures.

The third challenge may go without saying, but we'll go ahead and say it -- it won't be cheap. Because we'll be using it for exhibit space, it will have to meet all kinds of requirements for climate control, electrical needs, accessibility... the list goes on.

We'll post more information as we have it. This project is a long-term one, so for now we have to just enjoy the notion. But suffice it to say, this won't be your grandfather's carriage house.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Inaugural Post!

It's trendy, no? Blogs, I mean. They're everywhere. Even blogging about how trendy blogs are is trendy. We get it. We give. Uncle. So, why another blog?

Actually, there's a better question. Why another house museum?

Hold up, hang on, wait a sec. What do house museums have to do with blogs? Well, keep reading; we'll get there.

There's a belief, perhaps somewhat justified, that there are too many house museums in the United States (although I'm not sure expanding the criteria for judgement into the global scene makes the situation better, save that countries without houses of any kind might help to improve the ratio a bit). In fact, no one is even quite sure how many there are, that's how many there are. The last, best estimate was between 7,000 and 10,000. You could raise a child, send him to college to get a degree in museum studies, pull some strings and land him an Executive Director's gig in less time than it would take to see them all. And by then, who knows how many more there would be?

So the caged rabbit-like propagation of the house museum must mean that they're popular. That might be true if every house museum told the stories of our founding fathers as Monticello and Mount Vernon do, or anybody remotely famous and/or significant for that matter. But they don't, and a tour of your local house museum ought to confirm this fairly quickly. Their propagation seems more to do with people in communities who, out of civic pride or just sentimentality, can't or won't let go of That Old House on _____ Street. Did anything important happen there? Who cares?! It's both old and in our town.... Significant!

Sadly, obviously, it's not always true. As you read this, many, most of those house museums are struggling for visitors, money, and professionalism. Too few people can accept the too true fact that not every house is worth saving; indeed, not every house can even be saved.

What decides the fate of these houses, paradoxically enough, is that same community. If the people are committed to the cause of preservation, nay, of telling their story, the museum will survive. It may never be well-run, but it will run just the same (albeit like my old `92 Ford Taurus which had the unnerving tendency to leak a strange, red fluid that smelled a little bit like lemons). In most cases, however, support is not community-wide; it comes from a small band of people with limited money, energy, and time. The result oscillates between a pre-professional organization telling a very important local story to no one in particular, and a well-furbished club house for its saviors who would deign to let anyone cross its threshold and touch something.

It is the search for relevance that truly defines these homes, then. If the house is relevant to its community, it will garner support. However, if the house attracts no visitors because its focus is on its community, is it doing any good telling a story everyone knows, preaching to the choir, as it were? Today's house museum sails through those tumultuous waters between the Scylla of alienating the local community and the Charybdys of ignoring its mission. It's daunting, though not as daunting as a Scylla and Charybdys metaphor.

So, the house museum is in a bad way. Some have gotten out of the game by renting out space for offices, events, and the like. Better the home still stand and be used by someone else than be razed, they feel. Others find themselves closing their doors and hoping for better times. This leaves a scant few keeping the straight and narrow.

Riddick's Folly, so far, has been fortunate to be among the latter-most category. In fact, we have several advantages over some of our peer institutions. We receive generous funding from the City of Suffolk, Virginia. It doesn't cover our entire budget, but it makes up a goodly portion, and without it, we'd be hurting as so many others are. Moreover, the City owns the building itself, and they maintain its exterior and mechanical work at no cost to us. Once again, a huge advantage as these costs make up the bulk of the financial obstacles before other house museums. The local community has at least a general awareness of Riddick's Folly, and even if they are not directly supportive, there is some faint murmor of pride amongst them at the four-floor, Greek Revival behemoth that greats visitors to the city along Constance Road.

Despite the significant advantages, we have to wonder about the good we're doing. Riddick's Folly sees between 3,000 and 5,000 visitors a year. While this is actually pretty good for a house museum, it's not great for a museum in general. To be sure, we won't pay our bills on admissions revenue, but no museum truly does. Riddick's Folly has the luxury of time -- time to find its purpose, and time to find out how to accomplish its goals.

Despite this, we have to wonder how long the community will support us if we do not reciprocate the good will. We hold and use their funds and their donated items in the public trust, under the notion that we will serve our community by displaying, preserving, and interpreting these things in telling the story of Suffolk, the Riddick family, and their town home mansion. To do any less would be unfaithful at best, and criminal at worst.

We do try, but the challenge is to be relevant, I said. Be relevant to the community, and be relevant to those with an ever-increasing variety of choices of what to do with their spare time. Go to the movies, go golfing, go ride a bike, go to the library, the mall, the arcade (do they still have those?), the bar, the sporting event... you get the idea. How do you hook people?

It becomes more difficult as most of us perceive the historic house tour to be a grueling endurance exercise, a test of the will to stay awake while someone drones on about a piece of furniture you can't pronounce, made in a city you've never heard of, by a man no one remembers (actually, at this point, reading this blog post may evoke similar feelings). Most people emerge from a house tour bleary-eyed, unsure of what happened to the last hour of their lives, vaguely aware of a seemingly well-educated man or woman talking down to them for not knowing what a "pallisade" is.

See, the thing is, people don't care about furniture. I don't mean they all live in tents and sleep on blankets. I mean that furniture is impersonal. I don't relate to a cellerette any more than I relate to canned tuna. What I relate to is other people and similar experiences. I can heat up a meal in the microwave in a few minutes (the joys of being a bachelor), but the Riddick family had to keep a fire going in their kitchen all day, every day just for the flexibility of having a meal within two hours of requesting it. Who kept the fire going? A slave who actually slept in or next to the kitchen. This would be like the Kenmore service technician camping out in my pantry, just in case. See, I can relate to that (please don't ask how).

The bottom line is that we have to do what we do as well as we can possibly do it. We have to capitalize on our strengths, isolate and minimize our weaknesses, and then do everything we can to let people know we exist. In the end, maybe we'll get some extra bodies in the door. Or, we may only get some extra eyes on our blog. Either way, it's progress.

Progress. I guess that's what house museums have to do with blogs. And I think that's quite enough for a first post.