Longtime Wytheville museum director retires

For nearly three decades, the name Frances Emerson has been associated with Wytheville’s museums. The town’s first museum director, Emerson retired Dec. 10.

Born in Wytheville, Emerson graduated from George Wythe High School and earned a degree in sociology from University of Mary Washington. Following graduation, she moved to the nation’s capital, where she worked for a congressman and as a clerk for the U.S. House of Representatives. She also worked for a nonprofit organization that worked with employers to hire women for non-traditional careers like plumbing and electrical work.

In 1981, she met the man she eventually married, musician Frank Emerson, who specializes in Irish, Scotch and American folk music. By the time the couple moved from Washington, Emerson had played all over the country.

In the mid-1980s, the Emersons returned to Wytheville.

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“I wanted to be closer to my family here, and he loved the area,” she said. “We decided to take a leap and come here and see what we could get into.”

What they got into was the restaurant business.

They opened Words and Music on Tazewell Street, a restaurant that served up live music, along with sandwiches, soups, desserts, coffee, wine and beer. Several years later, the couple closed their café.

Emerson was looking for a change, and she found it.

“I’ve always loved the Rock House and loved history,” she said, adding that she also had nonprofit and grant-writing experience. “The town was looking for a museum director, and I got the job.”

At the time, the town had two museums: the Haller-Gibboney Rock House and the Thomas J. Boyd Museum. Under her guidance, the list would grow to include the Great Lakes to Florida Highway Museum and the Homestead Museum, a 10-acre site that depicts rural life from the 1700s to the mid-20th century.

Until her arrival, Wythe County Historical Society volunteers managed and operated the Rock House and Boyd museums.

“They had done a wonderful job and taken care of everything. They had good exhibits; there was a lot to work with,” Emerson said. “Tourism was becoming a bigger opportunity for the town, and the timing was that it was time to take it to the next level, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do next. Running your own business is hard. It turns out I had the skills they were looking for, plus I knew history and so many of the people here.”

The first thing Emerson did was get some training in the museum field by attending management seminars, workshops and courses.

“It was intense training, and I brought in consultants to give recommendations about what to do for the future. I was learning as I went along. I learned from museum consultants … and got advice on the preservation and care of items, and organizational things we needed to move forward,” Emerson said.

During her 28-year tenure, the biggest exhibit Emerson curated was the town’s polio exhibit, which remains a popular tourist destination. Wytheville had the highest number of polio cases per capital than anywhere else in the country. In addition to the exhibit, Emerson organized a public forum on the 1950 epidemic that included as a guest John Seccafico, who as a 20-month old was the town’s first case of polio.

“We worked with professional exhibit designers – we have worked with the same exhibit designers for 20 years – to help figure out the story you are trying to tell and then fabricate the designs,” Emerson said. “That is a luxury when you can find someone to come in and do that, but you have to have the funding.”

The museum department also published a history of the local epidemic, “A Summer Without Children.” The book includes interviews with 50 people who either had polio or had been involved in the epidemic, including doctors, nurses and community members.

“It is the largest scale exhibit we have done,” Emerson said. “We still get inquiries from across the nation about it.”

For this reason and more, the polio exhibit remains as one of Emerson’s favorites. But she’s also excited about the recently opened police, fire and rescue exhibit.

“That has been a dream for a while to honor those folks,” Emerson said. “It’s a permanent exhibit, but I hope someday there will be a fire and rescue museum so they can expand that exhibit. There’s a lot more in terms of exhibits and stories to tell.”

Emerson is also excited about the department’s heritage education programs that were started in the late 1990s and continue to grow.

“We do so many different programs with schools, day cares, private schools and some out-of-the-county schools, too,” Emerson said. “It’s all based on local history and they are all designed to supplement the Virginia SOL. Teachers like the opportunity to do something different with hands-on experience, like learning how to preserve food, the tin punch that Wythe County is famous for, learning science, math and social studies, but at the same time, having a good time.”

Emerson is proud of the museums she has overseen and said most Virginia museums don’t have the number of programs Wytheville has, but what she has enjoyed most about working for the Town is its people.

“I work with terrific people,” she said. “Working with the Town has been such a positive experience, we get so much support from the administration … it’s a pleasure every day. The museum staff is top-notch and dedicated. Everything we have accomplished has been a team effort.

“This is such a partnership with the Wythe County Historical Society, the Town and the community; we are just so blessed with the support we have gotten from people. There is something new every day, and I love learning something new all the time.”

Wytheville Town Manager Brian Freeman said Emerson was a true community builder through her work in historic preservation, interpretation and education.

“Her work has been instrumental in bringing the story of the Town and the surrounding region to the fore with accuracy and honesty and preserving it for generations to come,” he said.

Wytheville Tourism Director Rosa Lee Jude said it has been a privilege to work side-by-side with Emerson for more than 25 years.

“She has taken our history and historic preservation to a level of professionalism that we never would have thought possible with the relatively limited resources she’s had to work with,” Jude said. “Our museums are a cornerstone of the attractions we offer visitors and have made a lovely foundation also for the new Downtown Wytheville, which we promote. Frances’ dedication to that task is her legacy and has made our local history relevant for generations to come.”

As for retirement, Emerson said she plans to step away for a bit and let her replacement, Grant Gerlich, settle in.

“He’s going to do a great job,” she said.

“Right now, I’m just going to figure out this next phase of our life and what we are going to get into. Frank retired this year, too. We are looking forward to new adventures and new projects.”

To reach reporter Millie Rothrock, call 276-228-6611, ext. 573, or email [email protected]

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