February 9, 2013 7:42:07 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
This Valentine's Day, sumptuous chocolates in heart-shaped boxes and scented bouquets will be in abundance. But the historic Stephen D. Lee Home in Columbus will receive a Valentine of a different kind, one far more valuable and long-lasting.
A Valentine party at Errolton, the antebellum home of Keith and Gaines Gaskin, will benefit the Stephen D. Lee Foundation and its mission of preserving the 1847 Lee Home as a reservoir of history and a popular setting for community gatherings of all kinds.
While most are familiar with the home's red-brick facade on Seventh Street North, the Italianate architecture and gracious parlors, with their soft pastel walls, high ceilings, period furnishings and elegant appointments, far too many are unaware of the jewel on the second floor -- the Florence McLeod Hazard Museum.
There, rooms filled with fascinating artifacts offer a glimpse into the life and times of Gen. Stephen Dill Lee -- military officer, planter, legislator, author and first president of what is now Mississippi State University. They also tell a story of life in Columbus and Mississippi during Lee's lifespan, 1833 to 1908.
Carolyn Burns Kaye is curator of the museum and manager of the Lee Home. She knows its every floor creak, even its ghosts.
"I've always loved it, and I promised the Lee family descendants that I would take care of it," she said of the house where Gen. Lee and his wife, Regina Harrison Lee, settled after the Civil War.
A passion for preservation
That the home and museum stand today is a testament to people like the late Florence Hazard, who wasted no time in coming to the structure's rescue after it was heavily damaged by fire in December 1959, when it was part of S.D. Lee Junior High School.
"The school burned one day and the next day in the paper my mother had a letter to the editor about the need to save the house," said Eulalie Davis, Hazard's daughter and current president of the S.D. Lee Foundation.
Davis can still vividly recall often walking up the back steps of the Lee Home as a child, her small hand firmly held in her mother's. Hazard served as the first president of a newly-formed historical society and was a tireless, hands-on advocate during the renovation.
"She wasn't afraid to ask anybody for anything," smiled Davis. "Mother worked so hard to get the original pieces back. Her real success was in cultivating relationships with the Lee family," she added, noting the many original items descendants have returned to the house.
Stroll through history
Kaye is right at home in the museum, where dedicated docents, led by head docent Lillian Wade, offer tours on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and by appointment at other times. Kaye moved from case to case Wednesday in a room of artifacts from the War Between the States, in which Lee served as the youngest Lieutenant General in the Confederate force.
For every item, there is a story -- a sword from the battlefield, a drum that once called soldiers to march, handwritten war-time correspondence, a beaded watch case, an intricately carved ivory pipe, or a pair of Robert E. Lee's spurs -- a gift to Stephen D. Lee from his friend and former roommate at West Point Military Academy, Custis Lee, the commander's son.
Other rooms hold antebellum dresses, now delicate with age, collections of china, silver and ironware. There are beautifully detailed wedding gowns and attire from the late 19th and early 20th century, and even a bedroom of period furnishings.
"The normal lifespan of a house museum is about 15 years," Kaye said. "This one has been open for more than 50 years. It is a symbol of the dedication of the volunteers that took on the project of creating this museum for people to enjoy. It's through hard work because everything here is volunteer."
Indeed, the home is maintained without city, county, state or federal money. Instead, it relies on donations, rentals and fundraisers like the Foundation's Valentine gala. The Association for the Preservation of Antiquities' Country Store Bake Sale each autumn also plays an important role.
"That money is vital to the maintenance of the house," Davis said, praising the Antiquities Society. Those funds help cover a caretaker's salary and the insurance, and, just this month, purchased a new commercial dishwasher for the house, which is often used for weddings, luncheons and receptions.
High on the Lee Home wish list for the future are some enhancements designed by Kaye's late husband, architect Sam Kaye, who gave generously of his time and expertise to preserve the Lee Home. One of those includes a wheelchair ramp. That and an interior elevator would allow more people to enjoy the home and the second-floor museum, and learn more about Gen. Lee, who became known as one of the great peacemakers after the Civil War.
His obituary ran in newspapers from coast to coast, and even some European countries, when he died in 1908 and was buried at Friendship Cemetery. The man who devoted himself to education and his state had a vision that continues to be seen in Mississippi today, at MSU and at the Vicksburg National Military Park in particular.
"We really are trying to educate people about not only Stephen D. Lee -- who was a statesman and so important to the founding of MSU, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History and instrumental in establishing the military park at Vicksburg -- but the history of this area as well," said Davis, who encouraged students, church groups, Scout troops, study clubs and others to take advantage of the house museum located at 316 Seventh St. N.
"And it's not too late to help by attending the Valentine Party. Just contact me at 662-328-3088," she added.
Editor's note: For information about museum tours, contact the Lee Home at 662-328-8888.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.