I have walked through Leesburg’s historic downtown countless times. But now I will never look at its streets and buildings in quite the same way again.
Historian Richard Treat Gillespie led us on a circuit of the downtown, tracing the evolution of Leesburg during the war years of 1861-1865. Through his stories, he painted a picture of what it was like to live in Leesburg during those fateful years.
He had some wonderful tales to tell: of how Leesburg’s John Janney cast a vote against secession because George Washington would not have wanted to divide the union he had fought to create; of how young soldiers packed the balconies of Leesburg Presbyterian Church to admire the pretty ladies in the pews below; of how an injured General Robert E. Lee took shelter in a house on King Street and pondered war strategy; and of how Leesburg women turned their backs on Union soldiers who were marching triumphantly through town.
We stood beside the old Valley Bank Building on Market Street and peered eastward around the corner of the building, just as Leesburg townspeople did about 150 years ago while warily watching a band of Union soldiers approaching from the bottom of the hill, near the current site of Mom’s Apple Pies.
And we stood in a cemetery and listened as Gillespie read words from the diary of a teenage Leesburg girl who was smitten with a soldier who had sent her a valentine. He is believed to have survived the war years, but we knew from the date on her tombstone that she did not, and that her love was unrequited.
The tour was priceless – and it was free.
It’s easy to think of a library as shelves of books, tables with microfilm readers and computers, filing cabinets and racks of periodicals. But the Thomas Balch Library is much more.
The library is a wonderful resource for people with an interest in history and genealogy. It attracts visitors from around the world. And it offers a wealth of programs that help put Leesburg’s rich history in perspective.
The library’s rebirth as a center for local history almost didn’t happen.
Founded in 1922, the Thomas Balch Library operated for many years on a subscription basis, open only to members. It didn’t become a full-service public library until the 1960s.
In 1992, it was supplanted by the Rust Library as the Leesburg branch in the county’s library system. Plans to convert the Thomas Balch Library into a history and genealogy library were threatened by a serious fiscal downturn, and the county’s Board of Supervisors considered closing it.
Fortunately, the Town of Leesburg stepped up and took over the operation of the library in 1994. The town also did a beautiful job of expanding and renovating the library in 2000.
I have an interest in genealogy myself, and when traveling around Virginia and the rest of the country I frequently go out of my way to visit courthouses and libraries to do research. I have studied my own family history at the Thomas Balch Library, and have even used the library’s microfilm readers more than once to do research for my Inside Out column on Patch.
I can say without hesitation that the Thomas Balch Library is truly first-rate, as good as any such library I have seen.
Still, the library continues to be threatened during tough economic times. During the recent recession, some members of the town council talked of reducing staff and opening the library only by appointment.
Just last week, Council Member Thomas S. Dunn attempted to cut the library’s budget by $100,000. This would have forced layoffs in the library’s staff, which is already small. Fortunately, his motion failed to get a second.
At the beginning of the Civil War walking tour, Gillespie encouraged us to pass along the stories we would hear. If history isn’t shared with others, it can be forgotten.
If you haven’t visited the Thomas Balch Library yet, or attended one of its programs, I urge you to do so. Leesburg’s history is a treasure we need to protect, nurture and pass on to others.