Historic Long Branch embarks on new era

Posted: October 28, 2013

The Winchester Star

Elizabeth Ryan (left), operations associate at Historic Long Branch, talks with Annie Williams of Salisbury, Md., in the home’s former dining room, which now holds an interpretative display area. A celebration was held over the weekend to mark the reopening of the Clarke County house to the public. (Photo by Jeff Taylor)

MILLWOOD — First-time visitor Russell Butler of Dunkirk, Md., described Historic Long Branch as a “treasure trove” on Sunday.
Those were pleasing words to the members of the board of the stately Clarke County home and its executive director, Nicholas Redding, who showed visitors around the longtime tourist attraction that has changed direction and focus in recent months.
The property  — which is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Virginia Landmarks Register — reopened to the public over the weekend after being closed for tours in the spring and summer.
“Historic Long Branch is working to become the most accessible and cutting-edge historic home in America,” its website states.
As part of the changes, antiques and art from the Harry Z. Isaacs collection that once filled Long Branch were recently sold at auction for $650,000.
Isaacs bought, restored and decorated the circa 1811 house and set up a nonprofit foundation to support Long Branch prior to his death in 1990.
The money from the auction will be used to help breathe new life into the property, Redding has said. One of the changes involves returning Long Branch to the 1840s, when it was inhabited by the Nelson family.
Long Branch, which sits on 400 acres and has sweeping views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is tied to the agricultural history of Clarke County.
As Redding explained to visitors, the house anchored a wheat plantation before the Civil War, when Clarke County was a shining star in growing this crop that made the Shenandoah Valley the breadbasket of the Confederate states.
But the “boom and bust” cycle after the Civil War kept the Nelson family, which then owned the house, teetering on financial crisis.
In 1957, Long Branch passed from the  Nelson family to Abram Hewitt, who owned it until 1978. After changing hands several times, Long Branch was purchased on the steps of the Clarke County Courthouse in 1986 by Isaacs, a Baltimore textile executive.
Isaacs oversaw a large-scale rehabilitation of the house and furnished it with antiques for his new home. When he died four years later, just after moving into Long Branch, he left it to the people of Clarke County and endowed the Harry Z. Isaacs Foundation to support it.
While the Long Branch board of directors has had the house open to visitors since then, three years ago, it decided to change direction and return Long Branch’s interior  to reflect the era of its glory days prior to the Civil War.
The board recently sold most of the Isaac antiques to help finance the change.
“To say we’re excited about this is an understatement,” said board member Page Dimos, who is a niece of the last member of the Nelson family to live at Long Branch, Sallie Page Nelson. “All the board members are behind this.”
Dimos said her mother, who knew Long Branch much better than she did, came to see it after Isaacs died.
“She said it didn’t seem like home to her,” Dimos said.
While Long Branch is still a work in progress, Redding said it has been exciting hunting down furniture that used to be in the house and artifacts connected to the Nelson family.
A Nelson family Bible and a belt buckle Hugh M. Nelson wore as a Civil War soldier are on display as well as a grandfather clock, a porch chair and a butler’s chest.
Cassie War, director of public programs for Long Branch, said she hopes visitors will enjoy some of the hands-on moments she hopes to include for the public.
On Sunday, visitors were offered a chance to try “tin-smithing” by punching holes in copper strips to create their own souvenirs.
Jean Butler of Front Royal was making a special Christmas ornament for her grandson, Tye Daniel, who has yet to be born.
 Tye is due in December, and she punched his name and the year on an oval strip that can hang on the family Christmas tree to welcome him.
This is a first grandchild, she said, and her first visit to Long Branch.
Butler said she appreciated the displays, which were “carefully done and clearly put out, so I can read them.”
“I’ve never done this copper stuff before, but it’s easy to do, actually,” she added.
Ward said such craft work was popular in the 1700s and 1800s and was found on lanterns and in cake and pie cupboards.
Giving visitors something to do, instead of making them learn dates and names, makes history more interesting, Ward said, and plants a seed for future historic preservation.
It  “could lead to the preservation of a place like this house,” she said.

For more about Historic Long Branch, go to visitlongbranch.org.

 — Contact Val Van Meter at vvanmeter@winchesterstar.com