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Barbour County's museum boasts mummies and more

by Gail Marsh

STAFF WRITER

PHILIPPI -- A lot of people may be familiar with the historic Philippi Covered Bridge, but Barbour County has another, less well-known attraction that has drawn people from around the world.

The Barbour County Historical Museum, housed in the former B & O train station at the end of the covered bridge, is home to two authentic mummies that date back to the 1880s.

For a number of years I thought the mummies were only a rumor, or one of those "urban legends" that start out as a tall tale and somehow become part of an area's history.

But no, the mummies actually exist and are displayed in a small room of the museum where they remain under glass.

Squeamish person that I am, it took me some time to finally get up the nerve to visit the museum and take a peak at the world-famous pair, and trust me, I was not disappointed. The two have a wooden-like, brownish appearance, but one glance will let you know the features are very real.

I sort of worked my way up to the viewing by interviewing the curator of the museum, 88-year-old Jim Ramsey.

Ramsey has been with the museum since it opened in 1985. The museum opened June 3 of that year, to mark the anniversary of the first land battle of the Civil War, which took place in Philippi in 1861.

"We have a number of Civil War relics and a lot of historical items from the Barbour County area, but people generally ask about the mummies," he said.

Ramsey knows the history of the mummies well, and told me they were the work of a Graham Hamrick, who supposedly got the idea from reading the Bible. In 1887, Hamrick began to experiment with embalming and attempted to perfect the Egyptian method of mummification.

After successfully preserving food and a few small animals, he was able to obtain two female cadavers from the state insane asylum in Weston. He was apparently successful, and the two have been on display in several foreign countries and numerous sideshows before ending up back in Philippi.

Ramsey said he first remembered seeing them as a young boy at the county fair.

The museum came into ownership of the mummies after they were purchased by a local resident, Frank Byer, in the 1970s. Byer stipulated that 50 cents of each dollar collected from viewers should go to the Philip Barbour High School Athletic Fund, and it's been that way ever since. Another 25 cents of the $1 fee goes to the city's library.

On the day I visited, people stopped in from as far away as Massachusetts and Japan, but didn't know about the mummies before they came.

"I think the covered bridge draws in people to the area and then they see the museum and stop," Ramsey said. "When they find out we have the mummies, they're really surprised."

Besides the mummies, the museum has an excellent collection of Civil War memorabilia, from Confederate money to a drum that was played at the surrender at Appomattox.

It has a number of old photographs, many depicting the area in bygone years, and there's also a moonshine still, donated by the county sheriff's department.

The building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is in amazingly good condition, but I learned that's because it was rebuilt after the flood of 1985.

Ramsey said the train station was built in 1911 and was a major stop for passenger trains before the advent of good roads. The depot closed in 1956 and sat vacant for more than 25 years before the city bought it and remodeled it.

Just a few months after the opening of the museum, the flood hit the area and about 90 percent of the museum's artifacts were lost. But Ramsey said the story has a happy ending.

"After the flood, FEMA came in to help, and residents raised money to remodel and reopen the museum. We were able to do that in 1988," he said.

Ramsey credits Mrs. Avanelle Myers, a member of the prominent Barbour County medical family, with raising funds to help make the museum a reality.

"Among other things, she was able to raise more than $65,000 for a new tile roof. It helped to make the museum more authentic looking and got rid of the leaks," Ramsey said.

The Barbour County Historical Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Sunday from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, people can call Ramsey at (304) 457-3349.

Staff writer Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447.

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