Mathews Historical Society gets treasure trove of documents from J. Martin Diggs estate

by Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Aug 04, 2010 - 04:36 PM

Mathews County has a treasure trove of historical documents, photos and artifacts, thanks in no small part to the efforts of the late J. Martin Diggs.

Photo: Mathews County Historical Society archivist Reed Lawson, left, goes over some of the items in the J. Martin Diggs collection with Diggs’s daughter, Carole Anne Hindman. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

Mathews County Historical Society archivist Reed Lawson, left, goes over some of the items in the J. Martin Diggs collection with Diggs’s daughter, Carole Anne Hindman. Photo by Sherry Hamilton.

A teacher, principal, civic leader, lay minister, historian and executive, Diggs had a lifelong passion for history. That passion led him not only to gather and retain a wide variety of items for his personal collection, but also to help found the Mathews County Historical Society, which holds many of his treasures today.

"If it was old, he was interested in it," said his daughter, Carole Anne Hindman of Mathews, recently. "A lot of people gave him their things."

Recently, Hindman decided to donate many of her father’s remaining papers, photos and other items that she had kept since his death in 2000 to the MCHS. Reed Lawson, archivist for the organization, is thrilled with the decision.

Among the documents, many of which were Diggs’s personal papers, Lawson found a folder containing letters written by members of the prominent Lane family during and after the Civil War.

There was no familial relationship between Martin Diggs and the Lanes, said Hindman. People simply gave him such items because they knew he was interested.

The letters, rendered in beautifully legible handwriting, are personal yet formal, affectionate yet respectful, direct yet eloquent. In one of them, written on Dec. 25, 1871, Gen. James Henry Lane tells one of his brothers, either Walter G. or Thomas B. Lane, of the birth of a daughter and also lets him know that a Christmas gift of oysters and fish never showed up.

Photo: J Martin Diggs

J Martin Diggs

Another, written by James on July 29, 1864, during the war, informs his father, Col. Walter G. Lane, of the death of James’s brother, Lt. Oscar Lane.

"It distresses one to witness Mother’s grief," says the letter, "particularly in Holywood, where she knelt between the graves of her two dear dead children and gave utterance to the agonized feelings of her broken heart."

In an earlier letter, written July 18, James tells his mother of Oscar’s death:

"My dear Mother,

Your darling boy and our dear brother was taken from us yesterday afternoon at a quarter to six. He breathed his last as though falling into a gentle slumber, these were indications that lead us to believe that his noble young spirit is now with Jesus."

Farther along in the letter, James describes Oscar’s death, during which Oscar repeatedly called out, "I don’t want to die!"

In addition to collecting original documents and whatever other items could be found locally, Martin Diggs and various friends and colleagues would travel to the Swem Library at the College of William and Mary, the Library of Virginia in Richmond, or even the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., to search for information about Mathews in university, state and national archives.

"He would go to Washington and Mama would say ‘we’ll never see him again,’" said Hindman.

Lawson explained that during the late 1960s and early 1970s, "everyone was anxious to get information about Mathews County because nothing had been gathered." Diggs and other dedicated historians would make copies of the papers they found and bring them back to be included in the archives of the historical society.

Hindman said she had saved her father’s papers all these years but didn’t fully appreciate his accomplishments until she was charged with performing research herself to compile information about her church’s history.

"I didn’t realize how hard it was to get this material until I started researching," she said. "I wish I’d done more earlier, but I didn’t, and I couldn’t see all of this going in the trash when I died."

A quick look through a few of the papers turned up a document relating to school legatees in the county. One such legatee was Eleanora Diggs, a 9-year-old female whose father had died. This list of "indigents" said that a William Brownley had donated funds to support Eleanora Diggs’s education and that of three other children. There are also a photo of an unidentified lady in a billowing dress, a remembrance card for General James Lane’s wife, Charlotte Randolph Meade Lane, copies of the papers about the formation of Mathews County in 1790, and numerous other items.

Lawson said she conserves and organizes the material by placing each item in acid-free mylar inside an acid-free folder and labeling it. Then she passes it along to library historian Becky Barnhardt, who meticulously catalogues it so that historians and others can readily find what they’re looking for.

MCHS keeps its archives in 143 various collections, said Lawson, among them number 45, the J. Martin Diggs Collection. The papers are available to the public for research. For more information or to donate materials, call 725-5747.