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Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington

Peter R. Thomas, Auburn University
The Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington, located in Columbiana, Shelby County, exhibits historical art and artifacts belonging to the Washington family and dating from America's colonial and early republic periods through 1865. It began as a small collection of family heirlooms and over the years has grown into a collection of Washington-related items second only to that at his plantation home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. The museum is located in the Columbiana Public Library.
Karl C. Harrison Museum of George Washington
Karl C. Harrison, a prominent Columbiana banker, founded the museum in 1982. The original exhibit items were purchased from descendants of George Washington. Two of these descendants, Eliza Parke Custis and Charlotte Smith Weaver, both of whom were direct descendants of his wife, the twice-widowed Martha Dandridge Custis Washington, settled in Shelby County. One of the heirlooms is an authenticated Washington teapot that Harrison learned about and purchased from Weaver along with other Washington-related items she owned, including documents and furniture. (She had previously sold about half her collection to officials representing Mount Vernon.) The items were then displayed in the Columbiana Public Library. It shares a building with the Mildred B. Harrison Regional Library, named for Karl Harrison's wife and long-time public library advocate and official.
In 1988, Harrison purchased a significant portion of a collection owned by descendants of Augustine Washington Jr., a half-brother of George, from a Kentucky auction. Again, Mount Vernon officials had already bought the bulk of the collection. With this acquisition, Harrison amassed a substantial collection of artifacts connected to the Washington family. Through the input of Washington's descendants as well as Harrison's financial contributions, a foundation for a dedicated museum took shape. In the mid- to late-1990s, plans were made to renovate a wing of the library to accommodate the sizable collection as well as to properly and safely house the artifacts. Harrison died on November 15, 1997, however, three years before this renovation finished. Upon completion, the renovated wing encompassed the new Karl C. Harrison Museum.
George Washington Bust
The museum currently houses approximately 1,000 artifacts, such as paintings, letters, furniture, porcelain, glassware, silver, jewelry, and busts. Notable items include Martha Washington's prayer book, which was printed in New York in 1783; several writing instruments that belonged to Martha; a piece of cloth from the inside of George's casket; and some of his surveying tools and equipment. Also in the collection is a 207-piece set of Minton porcelain along with servers' cases (ca.1785) from the Augustine Washington estate. A walnut games table with tulip and rosewood inlays (ca.1805) belonged to Washington's nephew and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Bushrod Washington. He inherited Mount Vernon following Martha's 1802 death; the table is a highlight of the furniture collection on display.
Washington Family Dinnerware
Among the documents in the collection is a letter Washington wrote to Pres. James Madison and correspondence that belonged to British general Charles Cornwallis, whose army Washington vanquished at Yorktown, Virginia, effectively ending the American Revolution. There also is an eighteenth-century sketch of Mount Vernon's landscape. Paintings portray Martha and George as well as various descendants. Also on display is an original tintype of Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee, who married a great granddaughter of Martha Washington. One of the oldest items in the collection is the handwritten will of a Col. Daniel Drake, who was the grandfather of Martha's first husband, Daniel Parke Custis; it dates to 1710.
In 1999, the museum received the George Washington Honor Medal, which is presented by the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. It has also been featured in several publications, including Daughters of the American Revolution and American Profile. It is supported entirely by donations, which go toward daily operations, programs, and outreach. The collection is protected by advanced light and temperature control features.
The museum is located at 50 Lester St. It is open to the public Monday through Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. There is no admission charge. Tours are available, but appointments must be made for parties of five or more. Nearby are the Shelby County Museum and Archives located in the historic courthouse, the Shelby County Arts Council, and Shelby Iron Works.
Published:  October 9, 2019   |   Last updated:  October 9, 2019