By Randy Arrington
SHENANDOAH, June 18 — It all started with a “couple of things” in the town vault and an old beautiful picture of a train hidden away in an upstairs conference room above town hall.
“I started thinking, this shouldn’t be hidden and only seen when the council is in closed session or we’re conducting an interview,” said Town Manager Juanita Roudabush.
After Roudabush began working for the Town of Shenandoah in 1999 and “things” continued to accumulate around Town Hall, the dream began to find a home for these local artifacts that help tell the Town’s story. That dream coincided with another vision to create a railroad museum displaying the roots of Shenandoah’s formation.
“The initial idea was for a railroad museum because it’s a railroad town, started by the railroad, had many people who worked for the railroad…and when word got out, people wanted to make it even more,” Shenandoah Councilman Russ Comer said on Saturday afternoon. “I found out just this week about what it means to the people of Shenandoah and the people of Page County.”
After hosting a donor reception and preview the previous Saturday and a Business After Hours with the Luray-Page County Chamber of Commerce on Thursday night, Shenandoah officially opened the doors of its Railroad Museum and Welcome Center with a ribbon cutting and grand opening on Saturday, June 18.
“Welcome…we hope that what you see you do like,” Mayor Clinton Lucas Jr., dressed as an old-fashioned engineer, told the crowd of about 50 gathered at noon on Saturday for the ribbon cutting. “On behalf of the council, we are proud of what we have so far and we plan to add to it. “
As the only working railroad yard between Hagerstown, Md. and Roanoke, Va., the wide windows facing the tracks offer a close-up view of what not many see.
“At other places, you see trains go through…here, you can see them change out,” the town manager said. “And the view…you couldn’t get any closer without getting on the train.”
While the railroad is clearly the overriding theme of the museum at 507 First Street, there are nearly a half dozen rooms throughout the facility (not including office space) filled with old photos and artifacts that not only tell the story of Norfolk Southern, but that of Shenandoah and Page County.
The local artifacts that started out in the town vault later grew to fill an empty office at Town Hall. Then as citizens began to see the small displays, they offered their own personal items and collections, and a grassroots effort was born to preserve the past of the “Daughter of the Stars.”
Linda Rose, the daughter of former Mayor Clarence Edwards, brought in photos and a large collection of newspaper clippings from her father’s time as mayor in the 1970s, as well as some of his military memorabilia. Bob Smith, the last living member of his family with no children, brought in his father Leon’s decorations from World War II — a man who lived through the attack at Pearl Harbor. Kenneth Morris helped provide a number of railroad books and photographs. Irvin Judd Jr. brought in some of his family’s large collection of historical items — like Mr. Milne’s buggy whip (Shenandoah was known as Milnes after an early mining family, the whip belonged to the town’s founder).
“We never advertised,” Shenandoah Town Clerk Lora Jenkins said. “When people came into Town Hall, they saw the cases.”
The display cases being used were even donated to the Town, and the generosity continued to flow — thus driving a need for additional space. When a former retail space developed by Doug Rudolph became available on First Street, the Town decided to use the space for COVID-19 information, as well as other town information, and thus qualify the project for federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The building was purchased for $220,000 and little renovation was needed other than some painting and flooring for the offices, which was donated by Home Depot. Most materials were donated, and labor was provided inmate trustees from the Page County Jail. An additional $18,000 in ARPA funds were spent on paving. Tax Prep was the lone renter when the Town purchased the property, and they relocated on First Street.
“We could not have built any better space for what we wanted,” Comer said, noting the location of a deli across the street.
The Town uses rent paid by Shenandoah Gym — located in the basement of the building and owned and operated by Councilman Mike Lowe — to help offset utility costs to operate the museum. Joyce Fluharty has been named the museum’s curator and the center’s administrator, after serving the last 17 years at the Shenandoah Computer Center.
“This helps people know the history of the Town. We’re trying to show you how this Town got to be a town,” Fluharty said. “I like showing people that and telling people about that. It develops civic pride.”
The museum’s curator noted that she just received a 165-year-old trunk yesterday that she hasn’t “even had time to go through yet.” It took four months to arrange the hundreds of items contained in cases and on the wall and in files at the new museum, and Fluharty believes that the museum’s opening will inspire even more items to be loaned or donated.
Visitors to the museum can see a photo from the opening of the Casey Jones factory that made jeans (forerunner of Wrangler) next to the Post Office, or a rare photo of The Shenandoah Inn or the Eagle Hotel, or the 1959 football championship trophy that Shenandoah High School won during an undefeated season. The families of Wayne and Buddy Comer have loaned a number of sports items for display, including old jerseys and photographs from their days in professional baseball.
From the history of Stevens Cottage to the beginnings of the Shenandoah Land Improvement Co., almost anything that someone might want to know about the Town of Shenandoah is included in the “research room”. Hundreds of photographs, newspaper clippings, documents and records are stored in this room, which includes windows by the railroad tracks. Other sections of the museum include a portrait of Page County’s first doctor, Dr. William A. Koontz (the museum has records of all of the babies he delivered), and an old uniform from a Shenandoah police officer just after the turn of the 20th century. The uniform belonged to I.W. Judd, a World War I veteran and police chief in Shenandoah.
“The preservation of the history of the Town is so important,” Councilman Richard Pierce said on Saturday. “You need to know where you’re from, and the history of where you’re from. You have to know the past to know where you’re going.”
A rather unique item in the military room of the museum contains a book donated by Pierce and his wife that they found at an estate sale of a German family. A rare, oversized 1936 publication from Germany about Adolph Hitler. The book sits in a glass case next to two standing U.S. uniforms from wars caused by the fascist dictator — a World War I uniform that belonged to Patrick Henry Rinaca, and a World War II uniform worn by his son, Lynn Rinaca.
While the railroad aspect provides an anchor and the Town history serves a key purpose, one of the offerings of the new museum that may have the farthest reach beyond the Page Valley is the inclusion of various memorabilia related to the USS Shenandoah.
Among the 50 or so that attended the special preview for donors the previous Saturday, June 11, were seven members of the USS Shenandoah (AD 26 and AD 44 — there have been five ships commissioned as the USS Shenandoah by the US Navy). Among those attendees was Captain Thomas M. McNicholas Jr., the first captain of the USS Shenandoah AD 84. The history of the ship can be found at thetoughtender.com One crew member traveled from Indiana to be at the reception in Shenandoah.
Sandy Shanahan, widow of former USS Shenandoah Captain James F. Shanahan, sent much of her husband’s memorabilia from the ship, including a special coffee table presented to him by the ship’s crew. Another commanding officer from the ship was expected on Saturday among more than a hundred visitors that came through the doors during the four-hour grand opening.
This dream of the Shenandoah Vision team from many years ago — to build a museum that will help drive tourism in Town — has now come to fruition. The grassroots effort has grown and taken root. From locals who want to study their family history, see the beginnings of the rail through town, or military buffs and members of the USS Shenandoah, there is truly something for everyone at this new museum.
Betty Knowles, formerly of the computer center, and local historian Amos Thomas will join Fluharty in the museum to share stories with visitors. Future plans call for an observation deck and an expansion of displays with room to grow inside the museum.
“Oh we plan to add more,” Roudabush said. “We’ll keep adding as long as people keep sending us stuff.”
Shenandoah’s Railroad Museum and Welcome Center will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, but will close noon to 1 p.m. for lunch. Those who wish to donate or loan items to the museum may contact curator Joyce Fluharty at the museum, or call Town Hall.