Explore an exhibit of memorabilia from a wedding held 130 years ago
Ever been to a wedding? Think of the memories you carry from it. Now imagine experiencing the memories of Margaret Harrison Gibb’s May wedding day in a very different era.
On May 27, 1886, Margaret Harrison married Joseph Norman Gibbs at Historic Huntley, an 1825 house resting on a hill with lovely views of the Hybla Valley and beyond to the Potomac River. Mementos of that wedding are on display in a temporary exhibit at Historic Huntley now until May 21. Information and items relevant to her family’s dairy farm are also on display.
A book on marriage given to the young couple and a congratulatory telegram are included in the exhibit, as is a dance card Margaret kept to remember an even earlier May day. Carried via a delicate cord wrapped around her wrist, the card listed all of the dances and the names of the young men who claimed them. Future husband J. Norman Gibbs competed with E. A. Thompson for Margaret’s attention and the opportunity to dance quadrilles with her.
Maggie, as Margaret was called by her family, was a young woman who reached beyond the confines of her family’s farm in Fairfax by joining, at age 17, the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle. Books in the exhibit reflect her explorations into the worlds of history, literature and science. Margaret’s Chautauqua membership card is part of the display.
Maggie’s interest in books was encouraged at a young age by her aunts who gave her books of children’s stories. Aunt Molly gave her the slim volume included in the exhibit, Grace Greenwood’s Recollections of Childhood. Greenwood was the first female correspondent for the New York Times, a staunch advocate for the abolition of slavery and for women’s rights. Was Aunt Molly intending to encourage an independent spirit with Greenwood’s stories of adventurous girls who could never keep their dresses tidy?
Items regarding the Harrison dairy farm are also included in the exhibit. Thompson Francis Mason, attorney, politician, and grandson of patriot George Mason, built Huntley as a summer country retreat from his busy life in Alexandria. For Angeline and Albert Harrison, however, Huntley was a year-round home and their family farm. Initially, they grew wheat and other grain crops but soon switched over to dairy farming. Fairfax would eventually become Virginia’s leading producer of dairy products.
The Harrisons found practical and social support among a community of New Jersey Quaker families that had migrated to the Alexandria area before the Civil War. They organized the Woodlawn Agricultural Society and the Woodlawn Housekeeping Society, and they shared in the reports on dairying methods, how to raise chickens, and the best recipes for pound cake. There were also agricultural fairs and excursions on the Potomac.
Within the circle of transplanted northerners, romances sometimes bloomed. Joseph Norman Gibbs, Margaret’s husband, was the son of one of the early Quaker families that moved from New Jersey. Like Maggie, Norman had aspirations slightly outside conventional farm life. Two years before he married Margaret, Norman asked the Ladies’ Mount Vernon Association if he could build a lunch counter outside the gates of Mount Vernon. Gibbs’ family members operated the business into the 1920s.
Maggie and Norman never had children of their own, and none of Maggie’s siblings married. The items that once belonged to Margaret that are on display at Historic Huntley are part of a generous donation from Susan Hellman, a descendant of the Gibbs family. Ms. Hellman has given all of us a tangible connection to a past Fairfax County.
Historic Huntley is located at 6918 Harrison Lane, Alexandria VA, 22306, near Huntley Meadows Park. The house is open Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tours begin at 10:30 a.m., 12 noon and 1:30 p.m. A Twilight Tour closes the Maggie Harrison exhibit on May 21 at 7:30 p.m. Call 703 768-2525 for further information.
Author Cheryl-Ann Repetti is the Historical Interpreter and Site Coordinator of Historic Huntley.