Fluvanna Faces: Tricia Johnson, director, Fluvanna County Historical Society

By Harvey J. Sorum


Tell us a little about what you did prior to becoming the director of the Fluvanna County Historical Society.

I was a stringer for the Fluvanna Review – contributing articles and photography on various subjects – including history, the environment, and social justice issues. Prior to that I was the director of the Fluvanna SPCA.


Why did you take on the job with the historical society and when?

I was offered the position six years ago this coming January and jumped at the opportunity to work for this wonderful non-profit organization that has done so much over the decades to protect, preserve, and promote the history of Fluvanna County. Learning about our history leads to a more comprehensive study of ourselves and our society.  It is the best lens, I think, towards a deeper understanding of who we are, and why we do the things we do.

What are your job responsibilities?

I am both the manager of a non-profit organization, and the project manager for the community-based work we have going on now.  So, I manage financials, help organize volunteer efforts, engage with the public, write grant applications, communicate with our membership, and manage social and all other media – typical responsibilities of a non-profit director – but I also conduct a lot of historical research, engage with other professionals in the field, oversee our important community-based projects…it never gets boring!  I wake up every morning and dive into whatever the day brings!

Do you employ anyone to help you?

We have recently hired a part time operations manager, to help with things like managing upkeep and repairs at our various properties, making sure we have office supplies and that our computers and such are always in good repair, as well as handling our bulk mailings, etc.  Linda Gore, a long-time volunteer in our archives, was hired for the job and has filled the role admirably! It is a wonderful thing to work with people whom you genuinely like, respect, and appreciate – such is the case with Linda. She still volunteers with us as well as a respected genealogist.

How is the society financed?

As a non-profit, the society relies heavily on donations from the public and on grant funding.  Our membership dues – $35 annually for a family membership, for instance – help a great deal.  Before COVID, we also relied on our Second Sundaysevents to bring in donations. We have several regular donors to our annual endowment drive that make significant contributions towards our operating expenses. We also are fortunate that the projects we launch often have appeal to specific donors who contribute to those particular projects.  An example is our ongoing work in two historic Black community cemeteries – Free Hill Cemetery in Columbia and Oak Hill Cemetery at West Bottom. As we strive to understand more about these spaces and the history of the communities in which they are located, and as we work in collaboration with the descendants of those at rest there, interested citizens have approached us with offers of support, which are deeply appreciated.


How do you determine what is current in today’s world should be included in history as part of the Fluvanna County Historical Society?

Documenting current events is a big part of what we do.  In the last couple of years, we have been busy collecting information about the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the most recent presidential election, and the events of Jan. 6 at our nation’s capital – all with a Fluvanna focus, of course. Especially interesting has been our program soliciting people’s writings about their experiences during all of these events; we have received really solid submissions that will go into our archives for future historians to use in their search to understand these unusual days.


How far back in history do the records go?

Fluvanna County was formed in 1777, so our records go back that far.  Both in our archives at the historical society, and in the Fluvanna County Clerk’s Office, you can find primary source documentation of what was happening here in Fluvanna.  There are also substantial records at the Library of Virginia.


If someone is interested in finding out if they are part of history, how do they go about it?

If they believe that they have roots in Fluvanna County, they can reach out to us by emailing FluvannaHistory@gmail.com with their questions, and our volunteers will happily help them. If they believe their roots are elsewhere, our volunteer genealogists are still happy to get them started on their research; they also can use the email address above.


From long time residents of Fluvanna County, do they ever share documents they have with you such as personal letters, pictures, newspaper articles, and anything else?

Yes! We are fortunate that so many people in Fluvanna have generously shared their historic documents – letters, photographs, other ephemera – over the years. Many have donated the original articles themselves, knowing that, since we observe standard archival practices, these treasures will be appropriately conserved and maintained in our archives. With modern technology, however, people can share their treasures with us and still keep them for themselves. We often scan documents and photos, etc., and keep a digital copy only, returning the originals to the owner. Once COVID abates, we plan to begin hosting “Family Treasure Days” throughout the county, where we will have scanners set up for this purpose.  The owner then not only keeps their original documents and such, but they receive a digital copy for their records, too. We keep a copy for our digital archives, and then if we do the scanning in a local church, for instance, the church too becomes a repository of local history, and they get copies as well.


Why should people be interested in things of the past?

It is where we all come from – it is how we got to where we are today. If we study the past, then we can have a better understanding of who we are and why we are dealing with the things we are dealing with today. Understanding the past helps us all to create a better tomorrow, I think.


When you have visitors, are they generally interested in both historical records and taking a tour of the Old Stone Jail or visiting Holland Page Place, Maggie’s House, the historical courthouse, and/or the Farm Heritage Museum?

I would say it is about half and half. Folks love visiting our museums, seeing these tangible remnants of the past, and learning more about our shared history – but many people also are doing genealogical research or historical research and are attracted by our deep and frankly rather remarkable archives.


When conducting tours yourself, what are some of the most memorable things visitors made comments about?

The Old Stone Jail Museum in Palmyra was built in 1828; designed by John Hartwell Cocke of Bremo, it was likely built by his enslaved skilled stonemasons and brickmasons. Each of the mammoth stones has multiple quarry marks on it – each one representing the ringing blow of hammer on chisel. I often wait to mention that when talking about the outside of the building to see if anyone will ask about those marks – and someone almost always does. It gives us the opportunity to discuss not just the construction of the building, but the people who built it; not only the man who designed the building, but those enslaved individuals whose skilled hands did the work.


Have you ever given tours for students?  If so, what would you say is their interest level?

Yes! We host an annual second grade field trip, which is always so much fun. Two amazing volunteers (and society board members) Kathy Brent and Lissa Gooch arrange the field trip and plan the day for the students – they see the Old Stone Jail Museum and the historic courthouse – engage in a mock trial and then have a seek-and-find in the Village Park. These young students are very interested in everything they see – they just soak it all up. I have been fortunate to have led some high school students through the OSJ museum, too – and they asked deep, insightful questions about our exhibits.  It was a rewarding experience for me, and a clear indication that they were invested in and engaged with what they were seeing.


With current events the way they are, is the trend toward erasing history any threat to the historical society?

I have to challenge the premise of your question – the idea that there is a trend toward erasing history happening. If anything, history – American history in particular – is now being more deeply explored and studied than at any time in my recollection. As archival materials become more widely available due to advances in technology, and as new methodologies are developed for historical research, our understanding of our shared history is changing and growing. I rely on primary source documents – legal papers, court papers, letters written as events were unfolding, the words written in journals and letters by historical figures themselves – to do my research and to help people learn more about our history.

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