Washington County Historical Society

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The Washington County Historical Society was founded in 1900 and for many years occupied rooms in the county courthouse. During this period the society collected a large library and a number of historical objects and documents. In 1943, the society moved when Madeleine LeMoyne Reed be­queathed the society her lovely family home on East Maiden Street. At Le­Moyne House, in addition to several period rooms, one can see the society’s library and historical collections, stroll through the restored nineteenth century gardens and visit the museum of the Duncan Glass Society. It displays the beautiful glassware made by the Duncan & Miller Glass Co. which operated in Washington for many years.

The LeMoyne House was built in 1812 by Mrs. Reed’s grandfather, Dr. John Julius LeMoyne, a French-born physician. His son. Dr. Francis Julius LeMoyne, one of the prominent citi­zens of Washington during the nine­teenth century, became an early leader of the abolition movement and his home served as a station of the Under­ground Railroad which spirited so many escaped slaves to freedom during the years preceding the Civil War. His large financial gift to the American Missionary Society established a school for freed slaves in Memphis, Tennessee. a school which still bears his name – LeMoyne-Owen College. His interest in education did not stop there. however. and for many years he served as a trustee of Washington College and was one of the founders of the Washington Female Seminary which operated from 1836 until 1948. In addition to these activities, he founded Washington’s Citizens library.

Near U1e end of his long life, Dr. LeMoyne became interested in another project, this one a bit more controver­sial. In 1870 he began to investigate the subject of cremation. His study re­sulted in his designing and building the first crematory in the United States on his farm just south of Washington. The first cremation took place on Decem­ber 6, 1876 when the body of Joseph Henry Louis, Baron de Palm, a Bavar­ian nobleman, was brought from New York where it had been “kept on ice” by the Theosophical Society of New York since his sudden death in May. Old Washington. still a country town, gained international fame that day as reporters from around the country came to report the event. Dr. Le­Moyne, who believed that cremation was more practical and sanitary than ground interment and not contrary to religious beliefs, was forced to de­fend his opinion many times before his death in 1879.

There were a total of 42 cremations conducted at the crematory before it was closed in 1901. the third being that of Dr. LeMoyne himself whose ashes are buried there. Except for some signs of age, the building, inside and out. looks just as it did then. The Washington County Historical Society has owned it since the 1920s and on October 14, 1979. to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Dr. Le­Moyne’s death. the crematory was opened to the public for the first Lime in recent memory. Over 400 people visited the little brick building that afternoon and the society now plans to open it on a regular basis sometime this year. It is hoped that the building will soon be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

As the Washington County Histori­cal Society enters its 80th year it is embarking on an expanded program of activities aimed at reminding its mem­bers and the community at large of the important part Washington County has played in the history of the Commonwealth. Some projects that the society has planned for the future include house tours, craft programs, lectures and trips to other historic sites. A project to identify, preserve and cata­log the archival holdings at the society is already underway. The LeMoyne House itself may be restored to its condition as it was during the period before the Civil War when the LeMoyne family flourished there.

Several other special interest groups are also involved in presenting this historical “message” to the area. Among them are the Bradford House Historical Association, the Washington County History & Landmarks Founda­tion, the Jefferson College Historical Society, the Fort Vance Historical Society and the Peters Creek Historical Society.


Nancy B. Saxon is the Director of the Washington County Historical Society.