Museum showcases lifetime collections

Published 8:44 pm Monday, August 6, 2012

BELHAVEN — It’s a bit like a carnival sideshow combined with a trip to grandmother’s attic.

But mostly it’s a time capsule of life in Beaufort County a century ago, housing items collected by “Miss Eva” Blount Way over the course of her lifetime before her death in 1962.

The Belhaven Memorial Museum has enthralled and entertained visitors since it opened its doors April 1, 1965, but the origin of its collection goes back much farther.

Way was apparently fascinated by pretty much everything. Among the museum exhibits, delicate china-head dolls from the Victorian era share space with rustic farm implements and deadly rattlesnakes preserved in gallon jars.

And the buttons! There are hundreds, if not thousands, on display, and that›s not counting those worked into mosaic maps of North Carolina and the United States. Some of the buttons, a gift from her mother-in-law, sparked Way’s interest in collecting.

Then there are the infamous dressed fleas, depicting a bride and groom, among the most unusual of the items on exhibition.

The story is those fleas were a gift to Mrs. Way from gypsies who did migrant work on farms in this area, said Arthur Congleton, who conducts museum tours and shares historic anecdotes with visitors. Mrs. Way would allow them to camp out on her farm on Beech Ridge Road.

Way’s treasures include items one usually expects to find in a museum. There are campaign buttons, including ones touting the presidential aspirations of Harry Truman and John Kennedy. The clothing collection includes military uniforms, homemade cotton dresses edged in lace, a late 19th-century silk gown complete with bustle and a suit worn by a groom to his wedding in 1860.

And then there’s the unexpected. That’s when the Belhaven museum really gets interesting. One may stare in wonder at a two-headed piglet suspended in formaldehyde, and then walk around the corner to marvel at the intricate flower wreath woven in 1855 from human hair.

Not everything in the museum has its roots in eastern North Carolina. For example, one shelf displays cast-off artifacts removed from the White House during the 1949-1952 restoration, including bits of molding and ceiling decorations from the Blue Room and the State Dining Room. Also in a presidential vein is a tattered, yellowed copy of the New York Herald newspaper, dated April 15, 1865, announcing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

For more on the museum and its artifacts, see Sunday’s Pamlico Horizons feature.

The Belhaven Memorial Museum, located on the second floor of the historic town hall, is open daily except Wednesdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. There is no admission charge, but donations are encouraged. For more information, call 252-943-6817.