There’s a certain strain of Southern eccentricity that presents itself to the more blandly rational minded among us as the compulsion to collect, to gather and store all manner of oddities from all categories of the human experience, from the mundane to the grossly compelling. Most of these curious compilers remain unknown until their deaths, when stunned relatives are confronted by decades of obsessively accumulated odds and ends.
Such was not the fate, however, of a rare specimen of Gothic small town impracticality named Mary Eva Blount Way, whose wild menagerie of found treasures has been showcased at the Belhaven Memorial Museum since 1965.
Fragments from a puzzle that could only be solved by its creator, the items housed in the museum, which range from Civil War artifacts to lovingly preserved medical oddities, stymie attempts to assign rhyme or reason. Housed in the top floor of the historic town hall in Belhaven, a windy nook of a town located on the north shore of the Pungo River, the museum is the last will and testament of a woman who, in the words of her husband, “never quite grew up.”
Mary Eva Blount Way was born in 1869 at the tail end of Reconstruction. Her family was among the most prominent in North Carolina: William Blount, her great uncle, was one of the signers of the United States Constitution and served as the governor of the Southwest Territory (which included most of modern day Tennessee).
She lived, it seems, in a manner that paid little heed to the conventions of “ladylike behavior” that prevailed in the late 19th century. She married a Quaker ship captain. She caught and dissected snakes for schoolchildren to inspect. She wrote poetry.
And beyond all reason, she gathered and grouped whatever struck her fancy.
In “The Story of Mrs. Mary Eva Blount Way” an unpublished autobiography, she relates:
“I was born on a farm in Beaufort County on the day after Christmas and I have had Christmas in my bones ever since…I was married June 24, 1887 at the age of seventeen and came to live in this old house (Beech Ridge) as a bride. It is located four miles from Belhaven.
“I have five children and they are all married and live in five different states from Texas to North Carolina. My youngest son entered the service in 1942 and my husband died in July 1943, so, since then, I have been living alone here except for an accumulation of souvenirs and treasures of about 62 years of my life.”
The collecting of things seems to have been an early, if not lifelong, pursuit for Way. Legend says it began with a gift of four antique buttons that were given to her by her mother-in-law, a small token of affection that would eventually grow to over 30,000 buttons. As word spread about Way’s mania for interesting objects, donations poured in from friends and neighbors who wanted to help build her personal collection.
In 1940, during the height of World War II, “Miss Eva” as she was affectionately known by the local residents, decided to raise funds for the Red Cross by displaying the treasures in her home for a small fee. The homegrown museum proved a sensation with the locals, so much so that it was extended to the family barn in order to showcase the more than 10,000 items that Way had collected.
An article in the August 1951 edition of the Washington Daily News provides a snapshot of the elderly widow during the years when her museum of wayward objects was still growing. The writer describes her as “a woman who has never thrown away a thing… A housewife, snakekiller, curator, trapper, dramatic actress, philosopher, and preserver of all the riches of mankind…”
Following her death in 1962, Way’s family accepted an offer of $3,000 from Belhaven residents in exchange for her entire collection, which was eventually housed at the original but defunct town hall in the heart of town. On April 1, 1965, the Belhaven Memorial Museum officially opened to the public. The curious, the bored, and the cockeyed have been filing through its doors ever since.
“History is stranger than anything our imaginations can dream up.”
That’s the assessment of Arthur Congleton, who has served as the museum’s guide for the last 20 years. Though he’s discussing a bit of Civil War political minutia (Abraham Lincoln’s attempt to jail a Supreme Court justice) he could just as easily be describing the conglomeration of loosely ordered “stuff” stretched across the former basketball gym’s dimly-lit vault.
With its creaking hardwood floors and lingering odor of mothballs and mildew, entering the museum is a bit like stumbling upon an attic sealed from time for the last 150 years, an attic stocked by a spinster history buff who quite possibly moonlighted as a mad scientist.
“Can you imagine all of this in one lady’s house?” Congleton says, sweeping his eyes across the shelves, aisles and glass displays. “It would be fair to say she was eccentric. I think her attitude toward life was ‘Why not?’”
Indeed. How else to account for a life spent compiling, among other things: a dress worn by a local 700-pound woman (she died in bed and had to be craned out the window); an unspent Civil War shell; a German World War I half-boot pulled from an amputated foot; fleas dressed in wedding costumes and arranged under a magnifying glass (supposedly a gift from gypsies who stayed on Way’s land); a human skeleton; an antique x-ray machine; an anchor believed to be from the War of 1812; several snakes (killed by Mrs. Eva), one stuffed, swallowing a wooden egg, another made into a necktie; various farm implements and decaying dolls; jars of home canned products, including one gelatinous mass labeled “chicken fat;” containers of dog teeth (circa 1950) and snake eggs (date unknown); a WWI machine gun; a stamp-sized Bible; and an April 15, 1865 edition of The New York Herald detailing Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
They’re all there, some marked with faded, handwritten labels, some placed in apparent random array, to be pondered but never explained.
Any one of those items would be worth an historian’s interest. But they’re not, if truth be told, why most visitors make their way up the steep wooden staircase to the second floor of the old Belhaven Town Hall. What brings them in, what brought me in, are the things relegated to the back of the museum, like dark dreams suspended in liquid amber.
Throughout her life, Way came to possess a series of medical exhibits, some of which were donated by a local doctor. Encased in jars of preservative, a one-eyed fetal pig, a two-headed kitten, and a harelipped dog peer out from their murky recesses. Two fawns, curled sweetly as if sleeping, share shelf space with a small, gape-mouthed shark.
Round the corner and lower your gaze, and you’re confronted with what appears to be an especially unappetizing pot roast in a fish tank. Closer inspection reveals that it’s actually a 10-pound tumor removed from a female patient and carted off from Pungo District Hospital.
There’s other things to be found there in the half gloom as well: a jar of baby copperheads, an eight legged pig, a slyly contorted octopus. But the museum’s most jarring exhibit, by far, is its most human: three prenatal babies, one bent forward as if in prayer, placed side by side, the light from a nearby window illuminating their barely-formed features. They would be old by now, as old as Mrs. Eva perhaps, these peaceful siblings of chance, whose futures are forever locked inside their pale, silent anatomies. They slumber through the decades behind their murky glass, of this world and some other.
And watching over them all, a dolphin’s skull smiles down from atop a curio chest.
Amy Weston remembers the mummified squirrels. She remembers the antique dolls and collection of curled, ingrown toenails. But most of all she remembers the flea bride and groom.
“Our class used to come here when I was in elementary school, and I just thought that was the coolest thing. Back then I convinced myself I could see the little man and woman through the magnifying glass,” says Weston, a 37-year-old Belhaven native who moved to Portland, Ore. a decade ago.
According to Congleton the museum has approximately 1,000 visitors each year. He says many of them, after touring the nooks and crannies of the room and its exhibits, have one simple question. Why?
“They want to know what would possess a woman to collect all these things. I’m not sure there’s an answer for that?” he admits.
The collection is the only clue left, it seems. Following her death, Mrs. Eva’s sprawling house at the edge of Belhaven stood empty for years until it was battered to the ground by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.
“Her home is a real piece of art, filled with an amazing array of items, ranging all the way from a trillion buttons down to the finest china, and all is properly cared for, carefully labeled and displayed for the thousands of her eager visitors. Her feeling, humor, and grace when she reads poetry would put to shame some of the finest Broadway actors and actresses,” the Washington Daily News once reported.
There’s a photo of Way propped against a shelf in the back of the museum. It show an old woman, late 70s perhaps, dressed in a long sleeve calico house dress holding up a dead rattlesnake that stretches from her shoulder down to her slippers. Beneath an unruly thatch of white hair, Way is grinning, like a child showing off a particularly neat, but possibly illicit, discovery.
Propped against the shelf beneath the photo, what remains of the snake, its skin, is stretched across a piece of rough hewn lumber.
“So friends of mine, please all forgive
My praising these downtrodden treasures,
But they make my life so easy to live
That my work becomes a pleasure.”
Those words are from a poem Way wrote, “My Old Shoes” that she included in her autobiography. Though written in praise of sensible footwear, they could just as easily describe her attitude toward each of the fascinating relics she gathered around her in life. And maybe that’s all the explanation we need.
The Belhaven Memorial Museum is located on East Main Street, (or Business 264), on the second floor of the historic Belhaven Town Hall. The museum is open daily from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m., every day except Wednesdays. Admission is free to all visitors, however donations are accepted.