Minnie Lee McGehee –Fluvanna’s memory

Contributed by Marvin Moss

With the death last week of 95-year-old Minnie Lee McGehee, Fluvanna County has lost one of its most cherished and memorable citizens – one whose legacy in our community will be on-going for generations.  She was an historian of incredible ability, a researcher, a superb writer and mentor to the next generation of custodians of Fluvanna’s rich and varied past.  She was an irrepressible force – a self-taught student and expert on everything about our county.  Once you met her, you could never forget the experience.

I recall vividly the first time I met her.  After I bought my historic home, Glen Burnie, in 1991, I would come from Washington, DC on weekends to clear the grounds which had been untended for many years.  I slept on a futon on the floor of the unrestored 1829 house.  One Saturday afternoon a car drove in and parked under the ancient white oak in the middle of the meadow.  Exiting the car was almost the entire McGehee family headed up by Minnie Lee.  After introductions she launched into a recitation of the entire history of Glen Burnie and its frequently colorful owners including dates and stories which only she knew.  I felt that I had been visited by a whirlwind of knowledge and energy and went to bed that evening utterly exhausted.  I only found out later after I became involved with the Fluvanna Historical Society that I had been the beneficiary of Minnie Lee McGehee’s awesome knowledge.

She was one of the early founders of the Fluvanna Historical Society along with an imposing group of women schoolteachers who set out in 1964 to start an organization dedicated to preserving its history and to opening the county-owned Old Stone Jail, the county’s first museum. Upon her return to Fluvanna she married Henry McGehee, the county’s extension agent and a man familiar with the lore and history of many local families.  She set out on an organized effort to learn more and to become the legendary repository of Fluvanna’s history.  Over the years, she wrote dozens of the Society’s bulletins on subjects as varied as our grist mills and the checkered history of our early county seat at Napier’s Ford.  Her research included original sources and was meticulous.

Minnie Lee was a natural at writing although her style was more 19th century than contemporary, which lent itself to not only vivid descriptions of people and places but also to ensuring that her histories included a strong understanding of the roles played by individual citizens and institutions.  Here is an example from her bulletin on Fluvanna’s grist mills:  “The mills played an important part in the social, economic and political life of the community.  …The mill was the club, the favorite place for sharing news and debating the issues of the day.”  She also played a key role in editing bulletins written by other authors and ensuring that they were historically accurate.

Perhaps one of her most important contributions to all of us was her efforts over the years to mentor the next generation of historians.  Included in this were Deborah Murdock, Ellen Miyagawa, David Bearr and Judy Mickelson. Deborah had been hired by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to survey and describe historic places and structures in Fluvanna and surrounding counties.  She, of course, enlisted the assistance of Minnie Lee, who would lead Deborah across streams, through woods and fields to a cemetery or a building that only Minnie Lee knew existed.  It was an unforgettable experience.  Ellen Miyagawa, who with her husband, Bob, had restored Melrose, one of our most historic plantation homes, later became president of the Historical Society and one of its most prolific and talented researchers and authors.  She had been trained and inspired by Minnie Lee.  David Bearr, a descendent of the Shepherd family of Mountain View and Glen Burnie, became chair of the Society’s publications committee and worked closely with Minnie Lee on many projects.  Both were very strong, voluble and imposing personalities so their meetings were sometimes almost as dramatic as some of subjects of their publications.  Judy Mickelson became in 2005 the first full time executive director of the Society and soon was an adept student learning from Minnie Lee.

The life of Minnie Lee May McGehee and her innumerable contributions to documenting our county and its history exemplify the finest attributes of many of the people she had come to admire through her studies and writings.  Her legacy includes her family, itself steeped in a deep understanding of our community and its people, and a treasure trove of bulletins and documents written in her beautiful English.  Minnie Lee was an historian who brought history to life for all of us.  We will greatly miss her and her indispensable leadership and work.

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