Future of Confederate statues still in question; voters may decide

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Barbee graffitti
Vandals spraypainted anti-police graffiti on the Barbee monument in Luray on June 1.

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, July 3Herbert Barbee began sculpting his memory of a lone Confederate soldier guarding the road that passed over Thorton Gap near the Barbee homeplace a quarter-century after the Civil War ended.

Barbee, born in 1848, spent his entire life in Page County, except for the few years he moved his family to Italy to study sculpture.

His legacy, sculpted at his studio at Calendine, sits at the corner of Reservoir and Main Street. It was first unveiled and dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy on July 21, 1898.

It was cleaned and rededicated a century later on July 18, 1998. The event was an all-day affair that began with a wreath laying at Barbee’s gravesite, a Civil War encampment and concert by a Civil War military band in Inn Lawn Park, a parade from the park to the monument, and a re-enactment of the original unveiling.

On Oct. 27, 2012, the Barbee monument would be rededicated once again — during Luray’s year-long bicentennial celebration — this time after a $160,000 facelift, paid for in large part by the Town of Luray.

“I’ve lived in Luray my whole life, and this statue is part of our heritage,” Mayor Barry Presgraves told a small group of about 45 onlookers on that day. “Not only does it remind us of our history, but it is a beautiful piece of art which was constructed by a skilled artist [who was] a native of Page County.”

In 2005, a historic preservation group evaluated the Barbee monument and the smaller Confederate monument at the corner of Broad and Campbell streets (across from the Luray Post Office). At the time of the 2005 evaluation, the estimated cost for repairing the Barbee monument was around $100,000, but the town council did not include an appropriation for it at the time. When bids came back from historic preservation contractors in the summer of 2011, the cost had risen to $160,000.

The Luray Council appropriated just over $30,000 in the 2011-12 budget toward restoring the monument. It was hoped that much of the remainder would be made up in grants and donations; however, efforts fell short and the town carried the brunt of the cost and even included the restoration in its Capital Improvement Plan.

Contributions by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ruffner Family Association went toward the brick walkway, a historic marker, a bench and a flower bed around the monument’s base. The Ruffner Family Association took an active role in the project because Barbee’s mother was a Ruffner — the family which, traces back to the earliest days of Luray.

The monument that cost $5,000 to create from 1890 to 1898 — now cost $160,000 to restore (new foundation and base, repair cracks, clean, etc.) It took eight weeks for three workers from Standard Restoration of Forestville, Md., to repair the monument.

The questions Barbee’s legacy now faces in 2020 are: 

  • Who actually owns the monuments and the property they sit on? 
  • And who will pay the next six-figure bill to restore it in the years to come?

The question of ownership and continued maintenance of the two Confederate monuments in town took center stage at the June 23 Luray Council work session.

“We’ve had issues about this since I’ve been on the council … with private ownership having received town services to maintain … such as mowing,” Councilwoman Leah Pence told fellow council members at the recent work session. “If this is a case of the town taking care of someone else’s property, what sort of precedent does that set for the town if we continue to do it, now that we know we don’t own it?”

Town manager Steve Burke responded to Pence’s question by stating: “Now that we don’t own it, the legal thing … the legal responsibility would be to treat it as other private property … when the grass gets too high, we hire a contractor [to cut the grass] and then we assess a lean on the property” to pay the cost.

Research recently conducted by the Luray law firm of Reed and Reed at the direction of the town manager resulted in a title search at the Page County Courthouse showing the Barbee monument at the East Luray Shopping Center and the Confederate monument across from the post office were never deeded to the Town of Luray.

“Research of the property ownership by a local law firm determined that the properties where the two monuments are located are privately owned,” read a statement on the Town for Luray’s Facebook page on June 30. “As such, the Town has no deeded rights to the monuments or properties.”

The recent search showed the original owners of the Barbee monument (dedicated in 1898) are the family (or descendants) of Herbert Barbee, Averum and Virginia Hinkle. The deeded owner of the western monument is the Virginia Historical Society.

Town officials are now attempting to contact the rightful owners of the Confederate statues to see how they wish to proceed with future maintenance and upkeep — and maybe even their location.

“The town has contacted the successors to the property owners to let them know of the town’s findings and to establish a dialogue about the maintenance of the structures and properties,” the town’s Facebook post reads. “As with all privately owned properties in Luray, we will work with the owners to keep the grounds maintained.”

Luray’s town manager said on Thursday that the two “owners” weren’t expecting inquiries.

“Both were surprised to be contacted about the statues,” Burke said. “One entity has indicated that they do not believe they are the owners, and their attorney is working with our attorneys to research that.”

In 2012, the potential “owners” were also contacted and asked if they had any input on the planned restoration or any claims to the property or the statues — those individuals did not make any claims to either.

However, despite the recent deed search and the legal opinion offered, there are many that believe ownership of the Confederate statues is still in question. As of July 21, the Town of Luray will have maintained the property for 122 years, spending several hundred thousand dollars during that time toward its upkeep and maintenance. Many believe that gives the town the right to claim the statues under imminent domain, which seemingly would not be challenged by the “owners” as they have not made any claim on the property or the monuments in more than a century — even after being contacted by the town at least twice in recent memory.

Some also believe that the town has a right to the property and the statues under the legal term of “adverse possession,” which is a “squatter’s claim” stating that if an entity maintains a property for a period of time with no claim to ownership against them, then they have a right to that property.

However, Burke said that issue has been discussed with the town attorney and been deemed not appropriate in this case.

“Our town attorney believes that ‘adverse possession’ would not be a justification to take over ownership in this case based on a 20-year-old decision by the Virginia Supreme Court,” Burke said. “So, we believe that is not an option for the town to pursue.”

One reason for establishing ownership of the Confederate statues was to clear the path for a referendum on the November ballot, so voters could determine the fate of the two monuments. Legislation from Richmond changed the state code on July 1, allowing localities to decide the fate of their war monuments. Previously, they could not be removed under state code.

“That’s a way to end the question,” Councilman Jerry Schiro said of a referendum on the Confederate statues. “We maintain a lot of property that the town does not own.”

From Inn Lawn Park to the Singing Tower at Luray Caverns, as well as numerous alleys and roads all over town have never been deeded to the town — and yet they mow the grass and provide other maintenance at those sites. Inn Lawn Park and the Singing Tower are owned and managed by the Luray Park Association, which has a few local citizens as its board members and is a completely separate entity from the town. That group also added the Performing Arts of Luray facility downtown in recent years in order to secure financing.

Now that the town has spent $2,500 for Reed and Reed to review a handful of documents at the courthouse, there still seems to be no true answer to the real question: What will happen to the statues moving forward?

The town has received several inquiries, according to its post, “from those wishing to volunteer maintaining the monuments in Luray.” It was volunteers, along with town employees, who helped clean the spray paint off both Confederate monuments left by vandals on June 1.

“I was driving through the east end [of town] Tuesday morning, and the tarp was off [the Barbee monument]. A volunteer had come and cleaned it in the middle of the night,” Luray Police Chief C.S. “Bow” Cook said on Thursday. “They even folded up the tarp neatly and left it there.”

It was community contributions in 1989 that covered more than $15,000 in repairs to the Barbee monument made by Jerry Hannebury of Gardner, Maine. The Page County Heritage Society served as the custodian of the funds because of its tax-exempt status.

It was the local UDC chapter that raised the funds six years ago to restore the 1917 monument across from the post office — for less than 10 percent of what it cost to restore the Barbee monument a couple of years earlier.

Now, volunteers may not be enough. After multiple attempts to remove it, the June 1 spray paint remains on the western monument, although greatly reduced and faded. The town has left tarps on the monuments to keep the sun from setting the stain into the two statues further.

Chief Cook said Thursday that the investigation into the June 1 vandalism continues, but no arrests have been made at this point.

The police chief noted that there has been a string of spray painting incidents in town this year, dating back to February. More than one incident of vandalism with spray paint has occurred on the north end of the greenway, according to the chief. The targets were trash cans and the walls under bridges along the well-used walkway along the Hawksbill Creek. One incident occurred the night after the Confederate statues were vandalized.

In the last few days, the greenway was hit again on the northern end by spray paint vandals. On Wednesday night, someone tried to spray paint in large letters “I love you” across Main Street near Liberty Tax Service. Chief Cook said the Luray Police Department is pursing charges in that case and may make an arrest soon.

Those with any information about the June 1 vandalism at the Confederate monument is asked to call the LPD at (540) 743-5343.

“If they see anyone suspicious, they should call immediately,” Chief Cook said. “They should not wait until later to report it.”

Meanwhile, as local police watch over the statues, the fate of the two monuments lies in limbo, as the town works its way through the process.

“We do not want to supercede any wishes of potential owners,” the town manager said Thursday. “When we receive responses from the potential owners, we will explore options and present them to the council.”

While the recent deed research showed that the two properties where the Confederate monuments sit are privately owned, the properties have never been assessed or taxed by the county or the town. However, Burke noted that following discussions with the town attorney, any effort to recoup back taxes or funds spent on maintenance and restorations would most likely be futile.

“We believe it would not hold up in court,” Burke said. “Up until three weeks ago, we had an understanding that the properties and the monuments were the town’s.”

If the property and statues are deemed to be privately owned, it could limit the town’s ability to petition the Page County Circuit Court for a referendum on the future of the Confederate monuments on November’s ballot.

Despite multiple reports that the town will cease upkeep and maintenance of the monuments, to include mowing, the Luray Council has not taken a vote on the issue.

“Before we move ahead, I think we should look at some other options,” Councilman Schiro said. “I think a referendum is the best way to solve it. But if it turns out that the town doesn’t own them and the owners want them to remain, then I think [the town] has an obligation to maintain them.” 

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