Hidden History in the Heart of Town

Donald Relyea, Curator of the Karl C. Harrison Museum

Columbiana, itself a hidden gem, is home to many surprising diamonds in the rough. Chief among them is the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington, nestled against the town’s public library at 50 Lester St. Columbiana, Alabama 35051.

Columbiana was founded in the early 1800’s and as such saw much action during the Civil War. The town itself was burned in 1865 along with its ironworks that manufactured war machinery for the Confederacy.

Another hidden gem that was burned last summer, though how remains a mystery; is the Old Shelby Hotel, where not only the ghosts of wounded Civil War soldiers were guests, but President Woodrow Wilson, President Theodore Roosevelt, and Al Capone also visited.

Since the town’s founding, it enjoys more than its fair share of history. However, “one doesn’t expect to find much Revolutionary War history in Columbiana,” said Donald Relyea, curator of the Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington.

The town of Columbiana let alone the state of Alabama did not exist at the time of President George Washington’s death. Many travelers and residents alike find it surprising that the second largest collection of George Washington artifacts, outnumbered by only Mount Vernon, would lie in the little town.

The museum boasts of rare pieces such as Martha Washington’s prayer book, lining for George Washington’s coffin and many letters of correspondence between Washington and other notable founders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

According to Relyea, the museum’s authentic collection found its way to Alabama straight from the Washington family. A sixth-generation granddaughter of Washington was living in Chelsea, Alabama when she decided to sell the contents of her basement.

Karl C. Harrison, an avid collector and Columbiana’s prominent banker, got wind of this historical sale. According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama (www.encyclopediaofalabama.org) Harrison went toe to toe with representatives from Mount Vernon at numerous auctions and estate sales throughout the country.

The result of these sparring matches is Harrison’s legacy. Harrison died in 1997, three years before the construction of the new wing in the public library, housing the museum was complete.

Upon entry to the museum, guests are greeted by Relyea and a bust of George Washington himself. The museum is dimly lit to protect the oil paintings and centuries old documents.

Shining antique furniture, regularly polished lines the walls. Guests can meander through the rooms where British and American history elegantly blend on every counter, wall, and in every case and on every shelf.

A frequent visitor, Bailey Blake is originally from Montgomery but moved to Columbiana, Alabama to finish her college education at the University of Montevallo.

“I’m currently studying to become a teacher, so the museum has been a valuable resource for many of my projects,” said Blake. “I think it adds a lot to the charm of Columbiana.”

Relyea shares Blake’s sentiment, “The most surprising thing I hear from guests all the time is that the museum is even here. When people find it though the response is always very positive,” Relyea said.

“People can come and view things that belonged to very important people and they don’t have to travel to New England.” Relyea said. “I had a couple in here this morning who were just taking a little day trip and found us, and they loved it. They were so impressed.”

Samuel Becker is one of the 1200 guests the museum sees each year. “It is a great place to be able to come and be surrounded by history that you normally can only find in Virginia or Massachusetts but here it is in my own backyard,” Becker said.

As Columbiana’s historic architecture suggests, the town has weathered many years of history. The museum is open to the public Monday through Friday 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and is truly a unique experience for all visitors who stumble into town and well worth the visit for every history buff.