WINCHESTER — On Saturday, the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives celebrated its 40th anniversary at Handley Library, as did the only person who has been with the archives since its creation.
Head Archivist Rebecca Ebert predates the archives’ move to the library by two years. It was 1977 when she first became involved with the collection of historic documents and books that the library and Winchester-Frederick County Historical Society had been assembling since the 1950s.
At that time, there was no central location for the collection, so items were stored in numerous places — a church, an attic, even the trunk of a historical society member’s car.
In 1979, the downtown Winchester library completed construction of a new wing and received money from the estate of Lewis L. Baker, who asked that a fireproof location be established to house the historical documents.
“This historical society talked to the library and said, ‘Let’s do this together,’” Ebert said Saturday afternoon during a special event at Handley Library to celebrate both her and the archives. “That was a very smart move on their part.”
When the archives at Handley opened to the public on June 30, 1979, researchers were given access to meticulously catalogued and organized items. The once small collection has grown to include 25,588 photos and over 1,100 linear feet of manuscripts.
Archives associate Lorna Loring said many of the items in the archives are legal documents, personal records and pages from family Bibles that were donated to help flesh out the history of the people who lived in the Northern Shenandoah Valley from the 1700s onward.
“Virginia didn’t start recording vital records until 1853,” Loring said. “For births and deaths and marriages before 1853, often this is the only resource that a family will have.”
Cinda Foglesong, of Atlanta, visited the archives on Saturday to learn about her family’s history.
“I believe there was a George Foglesong in the Stephens City area,” she said while scrolling through a roll of microfilm. “I found a will from 1773.”
Genealogy is the most researched topic at the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives. Other popular subjects include the Civil War and local history.
“The archives are the institutional memory of this town,” Handley Regional Library Director John Huddy said. “Without the archives, everything could be lost to history. It’s vitally important.”
When asked which archive collection is most special to her, Ebert said it is the James Wood family papers that span from 1730 to 1881.
“Since James Wood was the founder of Winchester, it’s very exciting to have things from him and his family,” she said.
On May 13, 2002, the archives were designated the Stewart Bell Jr. Archives to honor Bell, an educator and historian who served on City Council from 1954 to 1972, and as Winchester’s mayor from 1972 to 1980. Bell had died six months earlier at the age of 91.
Each year, an average of 2,554 people conduct research in the archives. Last year, visitors came from 49 states and five foreign countries.
The archives is in the process of digitizing many items in its collection so the photos and documents can be posted online.
“It’s expensive and time consuming, so it’s not something we’re going to do with everything,” Ebert said.
That’s just fine with people like Cinda Foglesong, who say there’s no substitute for combing through an archive like the one at Handley Library.
“They’re an excellent source and have a lot of information,” she said.