Arts & History in Louisa
by Linda Salisbury
Arts and history are flourishing in the town of Louisa, not far from Lake Anna, and the two adjacent centers that make it happen are fairly recent additions to this historic community in Central Virginia.
The Louisa Arts Center (LAC) celebrated its tenth anniversary in September. The Sargeant Museum – home to the very active Louisa County Historical Society (LCHS) – celebrated the opening of its building in 2007 and its first exhibits in May 2008.
With several restaurants, wineries, and a cidery in the lake and town region, residents and visitors can combine their visits to the arts center and museum with food and beverage experiences or shop at a variety of stores. A few minutes’ drive from the museum and arts center along Main Street are Obrigado, Floozies Pie Shop, Nourish Louisa, The Courthouse Cafe, Joe-Joe’s Super Heroes, and Smokin’ Eddies BBQ, and there are many options more within a short drive to Mineral or Lake Anna.
The arts center is located on the lower level of the former Louisa High School, a stone structure built in 1907. Thanks to many years of work by the community, local governments and grants, the historic building – which had been filled with vines and grass before renovations began – was turned into today’s much-used arts center.
The LAC possesses the 205-seat Cooke-Haley Theatre, which has excellent acoustics and a great sound system. The center also houses two arts studios/classrooms upstairs and puts on programs for all ages. New construction added the Purcell Gallery, bathrooms, and a kitchen. The town of Louisa has offices and meeting rooms in much of the rest of the building. The theater and spacious art gallery with curated shows can be rented for special events and receptions. A cadre of dedicated volunteers assists with refreshments, seating, and other useful assistance.
LAC Interim Director LaVahn Hoh and Meagan DuBois, director of programs and strategic planning, developed the 2018-2019 lineup for the center’s performing arts season. It brings in outstanding outside musical groups that appeal to various tastes including bluegrass, R&B, jazz, classical, and tribute performances to the likes of The Eagles. Additionally, patrons may listen to the grandchildren of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty as Tayla Lynn and Tre Twitty take the stage in November.
Also on the season schedule are theater productions such as Oliver in December and The Living Last Supper in April. For tickets or the complete schedule, visit www.LouisaArts.org, call 540-967-5200, or stop by 212 Fredericksburg Avenue in Louisa. Many shows and performances are quickly sold out. Discounts are available for seniors, youth, and for special subscription packages.
During the summer, the center offers theater camps for youngsters as well as a new music camp.
Hoh, a retired University of Virginia professor, taught theater there for 50 years. As a nationally-recognized circus expert, he also taught at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.
DuBois, who accepted her new position in the spring, also has a theatrical background as Off-Broadway artistic director of 20 creative shows through The Possibility Project.
Both the arts center and the Sargeant Museum share a Fredericksburg Avenue driveway and parking lot.
Behind the Sargeant Museum are two small historic buildings that were moved to the site, have been renovated, and are now used for heritage programs. One is the Tevilians one-room school house and the other is the Michie House, used for demonstrations of hearth cooking and other activities from Colonial times.
The free history museum has six galleries with changing exhibits and programs about those topics. It is also a busy center for genealogy research, attracting many out-of-state visitors and inquiries.
The new executive director, Karleen Kovalcik, began on Aug. 1. She is continuing many of the programs already underway such as an oral history program and the digital trails. Kovalcik is also adding her own interest in “public history.”
Louisa County has made its mark on history with connections to famous people such as Patrick Henry, Marquis de La Fayette, John Mercer Langston, Henry “Box” Brown, Brig. Gen. George Custer, and members of Thomas Jefferson’s family. But Kovalcik is also interested in recording the stories of people who are not as well known from different eras and making history accessible and understandable.
Like the arts center, the historical society has an active, enthusiastic board and volunteers who contribute their time and talent in many ways.
One group of volunteers are part of a research project called “Will the Stones Whisper their Names,” which is documenting the burial sites of African Americans, many of whom were enslaved. Because so many of the enslaved grave markers may be simple unmarked stones or a pile of rocks, the committee hopes that learning more about who owned the property will provide “whispers of names.” The volunteers are also entering county birth and death records typically beginning with the 1860 slave schedules and also information from the records and wills of slave owners. The project also takes input from the community about the location of burial sites through a downloadable app called ArcGIS GeoForms and places these sites on maps.
Other volunteers are involved with additional mapping projects, and a large number of volunteers from the community worked on a major update of a book called Old Home Places of Louisa County Revisited, a coffee-table book with color pictures and updated descriptions of many historic homes. The book is available at the museum.
Elaine Taylor, LCHS’s first executive director, is now its program advisor. She worked on the Louisa Digital History Trail (available at www.louisahistory.org), partially funded by grant from the Virginia Tourism Commission and part of a new statewide program called “American Evolution.” The trail, with “50 stops in Louisa County, tells Louisa’s part in shaping our new democracy or help identify how the story of democracy was born,” Taylor explained.
2019 marks the 400th anniversary of important milestones in Virginia’s history such as the first representative legislative assembly in the New World, the arrival of the first recorded Africans to English North America, the recruitment of English women in significant numbers, the first official English Thanksgiving in North America, and the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Virginia colony.
Taylor added that the “Give Me Liberty Trail” – the digital trail through the county – will recognize people, places, and events that are often not readily known or no longer visible to the public. Among them are the home where Patrick Henry lived, John Mercer Langston’s birthplace off Ellisville Road, the 1700s Quaker Meeting House, and many other archaeological sites.
Taylor said that other sites on the digital trail include the location of the Melungeon Community near what is now the Shenandoah Crossing resort. Also included are 11 highway marker stops that provide information about African-American schools, slave-holding plantations, homes of several of Virginia’s founding fathers, the museum, and more.
The trail also recounts the stories of Louisa County’s abundant history. This history includes Jack Jouett’s ride to warn the founding fathers of the British attempt to capture them, a community of freed blacks before and after the Civil War, the birthplace of Henry “Box” Brown, and various mills.
The museum’s changing exhibits are rich in local history, including information about its trains, schools, mines, and people.
Upcoming events include family days and homesteading on Heritage Farm in October, Traditions on the Frontier in November, family history and genealogy workshops on the first Wednesday of each month, the open hearth cooking guild, and Twelfth Night Holiday Feast in January. A special annual event, Heritage Day, is set for April 27 when Louisa County is celebrated through living history demonstrations, artisan retail, and food vendors.
For a full schedule of events, programs, and classes available through the society, visit them at 214 Fredericksburg Avenue in Louisa, call them at 540-967-5975, or check out www.louisahistory.org.