1861 First National Flag returned to the museum

Linda Burchette

An 1861 First National Flag, made by ladies in Smyth County for their men fighting in the Civil War, returned to Marion on Friday after seven years in Saltville.

The flag is owned by the Smyth County Historical & Museum Society but needed a temporary home when the organization moved from one site to another and didn’t have room to display the eight-foot by four and a half-foot flag in its glass-topped case on its very weighty base.

When the historical society moved out of the building now known as The Henderson and into the Staley-Collins House, there wasn’t enough room for the many items the society owned. Various items went to different places and some were stored until the society purchased and moved into the former Parks Belk building in downtown Marion three years ago.

The flag and several other items, including an 1833 Mitchell’s Map of the United States, framed photos, money, letters and books went to the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville for exhibit and safekeeping. A resolution between the two museums was signed in March 2008 where the Saltville museum accepted the artifacts.

“We asked for space for our most valuable items that couldn’t handle a change in temperature for storage,” said DeBord. “Things were moved here and there and now most is back here.”

When the Holston River Heritage Center, a Museum of the Smyth County Historical Society, opened with its enormous amount of storage space, items stored elsewhere began coming back home. Historical society members were ecstatic to have the flag back.

“I’m glad it’s back. I’ve waited for this day since we moved in here,” said AnnaLeigh DeBord, president of the society, as the flag was placed in the Marion museum Friday evening.

A number of strong fellows including society members, high school students and Marion town crew moved the flag in its case out of the museum in Saltville into a U-Haul truck and unloaded it at the museum in Marion.

“Janice (Orr, with the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville) was so sweet. She said she was glad we could keep it safe for you,” DeBord said. “There are some more items there but this was the main thing.”

The flag was donated to the Smyth County Historical Society many years ago by member Betty Stewart when the society was still located in the 1908 school building now renovated into the Wayne C. Henderson Appalachian School of Arts.

“The flag was rolled up in the attic of her home,” said Brenda Gwyn, local historian and member of the historical society. “She said, ‘I’ve got something you might be interested in. She asked if we wanted it. I said, oh my gosh, yes!”

The flag came to the historical society from the family of Captain John Preston Sheffey. A copy of an 1861 letter from Sheffey to his future wife, Josephine Spiller, that mentions the flag is attached to the flag case. Gwyn said the historical society spent over $5,000 for preservation of the flag, the display case and stand.

DeBord said the museum plans to hold a welcome back ceremony for the flag and other artifacts once everything is brought back from Saltville. Visitors can see the flag on display at the Holston River Heritage Center on Saturday mornings from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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