By Matt de Simone
The Botetourt Historical Society and Museum (BCHM) provides visitors a chance to revisit some of Botetourt County’s history through education, exhibits, and activities. The museum’s 57-year history saw a couple of massive changes last year. One of those changes stemmed off of the county courthouse renovation project, causing the museum to successfully find a new home.
Over the next several weeks, the Fincastle Herald will feature interviews with some of the individuals who help make the Botetourt County History Museum a must-see destination.
The museum opened its new location at the old Hagan law offices at 26 East Main Street last year. Since then, the museum’s executive board, the board of directors, and volunteers have worked diligently to prepare their new home for visitors and in continuing to present Botetourt history.
As the county prepares to move the old Breckinridge law offices and hotel that formerly housed the old museum, BCHM President John Rader is excited about what’s next for the current museum’s activities, the new museum, and the county seat.
Rader grew up in the Brugh’s Mill area of Botetourt County. His family has lived in the area since the late 1700s. Rader is a graduate of Lord Botetourt High School and of the University of Virginia.
Since he was young, Rader’s has always been enamored with history due to his family’s interest. Rader’s father attended an annual board meeting in Williamsburg, which first piqued Rader’s eye for history at a young age. Over time, Radar explained that time spent in the historic districts of Williamsburg and Charlottesville while also growing up in old houses attributed to his early interests. Rader’s proud of his family’s history dating back to one of his ancestors who arrived in Botetourt hundreds of years ago.
“My family started out as farmers of German heritage,” Rader explained in a recent interview. “They moved down the valley like a lot of people did back then. The house where my father grew up was built by my ancestors and the person who lived there the longest was on the first Board of Trustees of Roanoke College. In fact, I like to laugh—he was responsible for helping move Roanoke College from, I think, Augusta County. When I say he helped, he actually took the wagons and helpers to move the furniture from up there, down here. It’s not like he just gave them money.”
Rader’s knowledge of his family’s and Botetourt County history led him to meeting with Emily Honts, who was then-Executive Director and President of BCHM. Honts asked Rader to take over as president and “just run the meetings” while she focused on being the executive director.
Almost 30 years later, Rader continues to just run the meetings.
“I’ve been president for way too long and every organization should not let that happen,” Rader joked. “They won’t let me resign.”
Rader says that his job is to monitor the meetings and “keep people happy” while the numerous individuals at the museum work hard to make their location inviting for visitors. According to Rader, the new location is working out “very well.”
“We were really lucky,” Rader stated. “The county is very supportive of us. I think they thought we would just put stuff in storage for a couple of years while things shook out. We determined that we couldn’t do that and felt like we couldn’t close the museum.”
Former Fincastle-based attorney Rob Hagan, who was planning to close his law offices before becoming a judge, contacted the museum. Rader and the board looked at the numbers and felt that the building would be a good location for the new museum.
Rader is excited about the new “Fincastle Museum” included in the appropriations made by Del. Terry Austin last year. He hopes to see the old museum physically moved and preserved, maintain operations of the new location of the BCHM, and utilize the new museum as a special events center.
“I think [the move of the old building] is going to be great and I just hope it stays together when they move it,” Rader said. “History-wise, [the county] knew they should at least try to move [the old museum]. They couldn’t just tear it down.”
When asked about the history of Botetourt, Rader said that there are two facts about Botetourt that he’s always found fascinating. The first being that Botetourt County once stretched as far as the Mississippi River for a short period of time. A lot of county records are still researched by westerners, who sometimes have to travel back to the Botetourt County Courthouse to find information.
The other fact Rader noted was that Fincastle was the most western town in the state upon its founding.
“Coming over the mountain was a big deal for people from the eastern part of the state,” Rader mentioned. “In the 1750s, ’60s, and maybe early ’70s, there were still indigenous people living here– that’s the big thing that sticks out to me about Botetourt. It was a pretty affluent town at the time on the western frontier and then, of course, things came along like the Civil War that set things back but Fincastle stayed the same [for years].”
Rader’s appreciative of all of the individuals who have put in so many voluntary hours to helping move the museum to its new location last year and continue to work in the museum every week.
“I don’t want to leave anybody out,” Rader said. “A lot of people have helped, but the Botetourt Women’s Club has put in so many hours. Some of the supervisors like Steve Clinton, again, I know there’s probably somebody else, but he put in personal time. We couldn’t do it without them, to be honest.
“[The museum has] always kind of been the unofficial welcome center for Botetourt and Fincastle because a lot of people visit on weekends and nothing’s open but the museum. We serve a very important function in that area too. The museum’s focus is the [county’s history], but Fincastle is the county seat and hopefully always will be.”
To learn more about the Botetourt County Historical Society & Museum, please visit bothistsoc.wordpress.com/. The museum is located at 26 East Main Street in Fincastle and is open to the public Monday thru Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and on Sundays from 2 p.m. until 4 p.m.