NEW LONDON

Carolyn Murphy and her sister Melissa Roberge grew up in the New London area, but moved away several years ago. Saturday, they learned there was a lot they did not know about their community and its historic roots.

The sisters returned to attend, for the first time, the annual New London Day celebration, an observance now in its 13th year designed to showcase the history of the area, located off U.S. 460 near the boundary of Campbell and Bedford counties.

“It’s a little bit overwhelming to me because when you live in a place, you don’t appreciate the roots and the history,” Murphy said. “You just live here and you go about your life.

“And then when you come back and you learn about these things, you just realize how much you didn’t pay attention and how things change.”

The one-day event along Alum Springs Road was hosted by the Friends of New London and volunteers from the Liberty University history department.

It featured tours of several historic sites, including Mead’s Tavern, which dates to 1763, and the former Bedford Alum Springs Hotel, a circa-1870s resort that was once a hot spot for visitors who came to drink and bathe in water from the namesake springs, which were believed to have curative properties.

Tours of the old New London post office and general store and the historic African American United Methodist Church site also were provided, along with live music, a petting zoo, an antique car show and a food truck. Saturday morning, the church hosted a traditional African American service.

Liberty purchased the old hotel last year and the site of Mead’s Tavern in 2015, where archaeological research is now ongoing. LU students helped to research the area’s history, built exhibits and wrote and gave tours Saturday, along with helping with parking and welcoming visitors.

While touring the African American church Saturday, Roberge said she has always been interested in the history of the area, but with the new archaeology work taking place, she has wanted to learn more about her hometown.

“I think it’s wonderful this is happening and things aren’t being forgotten,” she said.

Delores Hicks, a member of the Friends of New London as well as an interpreter of the artifacts, grew up in the area and attended the circa-1930 African American church since she was a young child in the 1940s.

The church closed in 1990 when the congregation had dwindled to only Hicks and three family members.

She walked groups of visitors around the church to view tables of historic items that were used in her family over the course of generations, explaining to them what life was like in African American homes.

“I love talking about it and I love people, and I love to attempt to tell them about life as it was in the African American community,” she said. “Not only the friendships we made because that’s the way we made it, we depended on each other to succeed in whatever we did. I love telling people so we can keep the history alive.”

Donna Donald, assistant professor of history at LU, said the event is about raising awareness about the history of the community and working to get people involved.

“The history of New London is sort of a forgotten history, and it’s really an important piece of American history as a whole,” she said.

New London was the county seat of Bedford County when it was founded in 1754 and was the crossroads for travelers going west, north and south. People who were heading to the frontier would often make New London their last stop. It was a bustling center of commerce and merchants, Donald said, until 1781 when Bedford County was divided and Campbell County was carved out.

“And so this was kind of on the outskirts and it began to sort of decline,” she said. “And what’s interesting about it is it kind of fell out of use, but a lot of the original stuff is still here. The history here spans the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. And telling that story tells us something about American history. It tells us about Virginia’s place in American history.”

Next door to the former hotel is the beginning of a two-year archaeology dig sponsored by LU of a revolutionary-era arsenal, which was used to store military weapons by the Virginia militia. The first test pit was opened Saturday morning.

At Mead’s Tavern, the excavation under the porch and basement have been completed, and a survey of the yard also has been done by archaeologists.

Donald said LU is not working on the African American church; the Friends of New London continue to raise money for the restoration of that site.

Murphy and Roberge said they are thankful for the Friends of New London and LU for preserving the area and sharing the history of the 1700s and 1800s to the community.

“There’s a lot of history that we never knew about when we were young,” Roberge said.

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Rachael Smith covers local businesses and nonprofits for the News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5482.

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