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Courthouse graffiti reveals ‘civil unrest’

The Shenandoah Valley-Herald

WOODSTOCK - The Shenandoah County Historical Society is working to uncover a decades-old mystery.

Architectural conservators are continuing to discover graffiti dating back maybe 150 years or more in the historic courthouse in downtown Woodstock, but it’s still not known when it was created or why.
The graffiti was discovered when water damage and chipping paint gave way to reveal the writing beneath it.

Conservators Chris Mills and Nicole Seguin were hired by the historical society to chip away countless years and layers of paint to reveal the writing, drawings and scribbles beneath them. They returned to Woodstock this week to continue the painstaking process.

Mills has worked on similar projects around the country, and said he thinks the graffiti may have happened during the Civil War. He had not yet found any dates on the walls to confirm his guess, but one thing is fairly certain: Something very dramatic must have happened in the courthouse to spur the graffiti.

Mills said it’s very uncommon for people to vandalize important buildings to such a heavy degree as the courthouse’s walls had been damaged.

“I’m assuming it would have to be civil unrest for them to be writing on walls of important buildings,” he said.

Barbara Adamson, president of the Shenandoah County Historical Society, agreed.
“People don’t write on the walls of important buildings unless there’s a good reason,” she said.

The courthouse, which was built in 1795 and has sections that were added in 1871 and 1886, is being renovated right now using county surplus funds from a previous construction project, Adamson said. The historical society is picking up the tab for the conservation work.

It isn’t cheap. So far, about $10,000 has been spent, Adamson said, and there’s a great deal more graffiti to uncover. It would cost about $50,000 to uncover all of it, so the historical society will be looking for donations to help cover the cost.
Mills said he is confident that if all the paint in the original portion of the structure were to be to stripped down to the plaster layer, which is where they’ve found the first “campaign,” or oldest sections, of graffiti, nearly all of the walls’ surfaces would be covered with markings.

Some of the graffiti is poetic: “My pen is bad / My ink is pale / My love and honor / Shall never fail / Amen.” Some, which Adamson joked would be hidden behind a painting, is vulgar. Much of the markings are written in large, scrawling red script, which Mills said is indicative of the Civil War era.

It may seem funny that thousands of dollars are being spent to uncover and preserve something that’s seen as so disrespectful and destructive. Graffiti was considered vandalism in the 1800s just as much as it’s considered vandalism today, Mills said.

But the graffiti says a lot about what was happening in downtown Woodstock during the time it was created.

“It’s uninhibited writing,” Mills said. “You have to take pause and stop if you see something like this.”

Adamson said it hasn’t been decided yet how the graffiti will be displayed once the courthouse renovations are complete. The graffiti project could go on for a long time, she said.
“It’s a personal record of the [situations] of probably young men who were in the middle of a conflict, a Civil War,” she said. “They’re tweeting,” she joked. “They’re on Facebook.”   

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