WARSAW — The faces of the young men peer out from the timeworn photos around every corner, each the same, each slightly different. Dressed in Army blue or Confederate grey, smiling with confidence or sad eyed and grim, the fading portraits behind the glass frames stand as stark gateways to a time when the dreams of youth were cut short by the all-too-real chaos of war.
Keeping watch over the L.P. Best House, a renovated late nineteenth-century Neo-Classic style home that has served as the Duplin County Veteran’s Memorial Museum since 1996, the photos are part of an impressive display of war artifacts dating from some of the country’s earliest conflicts.
“Being an old house, it’s a continuous process to keep it up,” said Randall Albertson, the museum’s curator, during a recent tour of the home. Albertson, a National Guard veteran who served in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, has been with the museum for the past 10 years, giving guided tours, helping with repairs and even building several of the museum’s glass display cases.
Sara Freeman, secretary of the museum’s board of directors, was also on hand for the tour, and related that the house was “in a royal mess,” prior to renovation. Photos taken during that time bear out Freeman’s assessment, showing a sagging framework of rotted columns supporting a precariously leaning roof.
According to Freeman, the home was built in 1894 by L.P. Best Sr. A century later Best’s son, L.P. Best Jr., would act as the major benefactor of the restoration project, contributing funds and much of the furnishing to his past home. Assistance was also provided by grants from the state and assistance from Preservation, N.C. Currently, the majority of funds come from private donations. “I call it a shoestring museum,” said Albertson, noting the recent, much needed contribution of $30,000 from the county.
Lining the walls of the downstairs rooms are portraits of the Best family, including photos from the marriage party of L.P. Sr.’s daughter, Margaret Best, who wed Kenneth Royall, Secretary of War under President Truman, in the garden beside the home in 1917.
Though many interesting artifacts remain from that era, including a grand piano, a perfectly preserved Victrola that can conjure the voice of Gene Autry with a few cranks of a handle, and an eight-foot-tall counter weight operated clock, the heart of the home resides in the artifacts from local men and women, items rescued from attics and the bottom of trunks that tell the story of loved ones from small town’s across the county.
Walking in the home’s front entrance, visitors are greeted with an archway leading to a short hall flanked by a flight of stairs. In front of the stairs, on a white stone dais, rests one of the museum’s most cherished items: The Duplin Veterans Roll of Honor, an oversized, spiral bound book containing the names of all known Duplin County veterans from throughout the nation’s history. According to Albertson, the list of names is updated once every year.
Gazing at the pages filled with names long familiar to the county, Freeman described her thoughts on the importance of the display. “If you don’t know where you came from, you can’t know where you’re going,” said the former history teacher. “We’re here to educate the populace and for the veterans. People forget it costs a lot; war is not pretty.”
Past the stairs, a framed cover of TIME magazine and other items tell of the accomplishments of Judge Henry L. Stevens Jr., a Duplin County native and former National Commander of the American Legion. In a side room, portraits of the sons of Wolfscrape Township residents Walter and Emma Kelly, veterans all, make up part of the World War II overflow from the upstairs displays, which comprise the major portion of the home’s military artifacts.
Framed to the right of the stairway, a wall-sized American flag leads to the second floor landing and spot lit portraits of the 11 generals who have hailed from Duplin County, dating from as far back as 1784.
“Very rarely do you get a county where there are 11 generals from the same area. It makes sense though, because Duplin County has all these bases around us,” said Albertson, noting the proximity of military installations such as Cherry Point Air Station in Havelock, Camp Lejune Marine Base in Jacksonville and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro.
The room directly behind the portraits houses the museum’s War Library. Flipping through some of the well-thumbed books lining the room, Albertson noted with appreciation the graciousness of local providers. “We’ve been very fortunate; people have opened up their homes and donated so much.”
Leaving the landing and walking up a short flight of stairs, visitors are rewarded with a veritable living history comprising items from the War of 1812 to the first Gulf War. In the West Room rear, Civil War pistols and a World War I Calvary saddle via for attention with gas masks, vintage recruitment posters and a replica of a uniform worn by George Washington.
Just through the door in the West Room front, Albertson points out what he considers one of the museum’s most moving displays: the dog tags of Samuel Bowden Jr. resting on a rifle plunged butt-down into a layer of sand. Bowden, a Warsaw native, died on May 23, 1944 on Anzio Beach in Italy, a campaign that saw some of the most savage fighting of WWII.
Despite the often-grim stories on view, the museum is not without some small, humorous items. Albertson points out a sign portraying the famous legend “Killroy was Here,” accompanied by the equally famous, bald cartoon figure peeping over a wall, a common form of graffiti that appeared on trucks, ships and buildings throughout WWII.
The room also houses one the museum’s more controversial items, a Nazi flag taken from a captured SS sub. “Some people have gotten upset about it,” said Albertson, “ but I tell them, ‘this is what we defeated and it needs to be remembered.’”
Past the WWII displays, a center hall features mannequins dressed in the uniforms of various branches of the military. In front of one row are portraits of men from one particular family, men who just happen to be Albertson’s uncles. At the end of the line, a mannequin dressed in the garb of a National Guard soldier stands over a photo of a younger Albertson, turned out in his dress blues.
Leaning over a book of photos from his time in the Gulf, the curator decries the impossibility of ever adequately describing the hardships of war. “There were flies all over the place and if you ate any of the food over there you knew you were going to be sick, but you got so hungry you ate it anyway. We’re so blessed here. Our people have no earthly idea.”
Propped beside the photos are several items of Albertson’s own invention: an electric tent peg driver and a safety step for 2 ½ ton trucks, which Albertson holds a patent for.
Down the hall in the East Front room, a POW/MIA flag is draped over a chair beside a table set with items significant to the plight of missing veterans. Areas dedicated to the veterans of Korea, labeled “The forgotten war remembered” and Vietnam, where 19 Duplin County residents lost their lives, round out the museum’s collection of historical memorabilia.
Paying a brief visit to the museum with his grandson, Joseph, Bowdens resident Allen Holmes said he planned to pay a return visit. “I think it’s very interesting; it really brings out the history of the county.
“It’s very well organized,” added Holmes, “ I’m thankful we have a place like this in the area. People need to come out and support it more.”
Studying the photos of raggedly dressed soldiers walking behind tanks on the battlefields of Korea, Albertson shook his head slowly and offered what could be the museum’s mission statement. “Primarily I’d like to tell people freedom isn’t free. There’s been a big price paid in blood and there continues to be. People need to know they have a jewel here. It’s not so far to travel to see what our forefathers did, to see why you’ve got your freedom’s today. The museum is here for its people; it’s here for everyone.”
The Duplin County Veterans Memorial Museum is open Thursday and Friday from 1-4 p.m. and Saturday by appointment only. For more information call 910-293-4682.