National Historic District assumes ownership of Port Republic Museum
The Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District and the Society of Port Republic Preservationists have announced the transfer of the Port Republic Museum and its collections to the National Historic District.
The National Historic District (which is managed by the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation) will continue to collaborate with the Society, enhancing the District’s ability to preserve and promote the history and culture of Port Republic by combining the local knowledge of the SPRP with the reach and expertise of the NHD.
“The Battlefields Foundation is pleased to be able to help our great friends and partners in Port Republic,” said Keven Walker, CEO of the National Historic District. “The Port Republic Museum is an important site for interpreting the history of the Shenandoah Valley.”
“The transfer helps secure the museum’s future,” said Tamara Gibson, President of the Society of Port Republic Preservationists. “And guarantees long term protection of the museum, its artifacts, and archives. Having worked with the Battlefields Foundation for many years, we knew they were the perfect custodians to take responsibility for these assets.”
Keven Walked added, “We’re excited that the Society will continue to provide indispensable local knowledge and support.”
The Port Republic Museum is housed in the historic Frank Kemper House, which was built c. 1835-1845. It was used both as a residence and as an inn and tavern for travelers, primarily for river boatmen. During the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Turner Ashby’s body was brought to the house after he was killed near Harrisonburg on June 6, 1862. The house was also at the center of other Civil War events in and around the village, from Stonewall Jackson’s narrow escape from capture (June 8, 1862), the Battle of Port Republic (June 9, 1862), and Union troops marching through and burning woolen mills (June 4, 1864) on their way to the Battle of Piedmont. After the war, the house was used for various purposes, including as a tearoom and a boarding house.
The Society of Port Republic Preservationists purchased the building in 1992 and then converted it into the Port Republic Museum, a museum and visitor center. Since then, the SPRP has worked tirelessly to preserve and interpret the story of the historic river town in the museum. The museum features a remarkable array of artifacts and outstanding exhibits that bring the history to life, with exhibits including the River Room (pre–Civil War), the Turner Ashby Room (Civil War era), the Keeping Room (post war to today), and the Discovery Room (visitor orientation and research).
The National Historic District has long supported the Society’s work. “We’ve been fortunate to work with the great people at the Society of Port Republic Preservationists for over 20 years,” said Keven Walker. Over that time the NHD has provided over $48,000 in grants to the SPRP, helping fund projects such as wayside interpretive signs, a self-guided tour/map of the village, repairs and handicap accessibility to the building, an interpretive plan, exhibits, the research and orientation room, and work on the Port Republic Riverside Graveyard.
In recent years, the museum has faced challenges common to most small nonprofits and civic organizations: supporters growing older or moving away; a dwindling number of volunteers with an overwhelming workload; and the Covid pandemic, which forced the museum to close to visitors. Concerned about the future of the museum, and the challenges of preserving the property and collections and being able to keep the museum open to the public, they reached out to the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields National Historic District. “Having worked with people at the Battlefields Foundation [National Historic District] for many years,” said Tamara Gibson, “We were confident that they were the right organization to safeguard and continue the museum’s mission.”
Knowing the value of the museum and its work, the National Historic District agreed to accept the transfer of the property and its collections. “We were proud and honored that the Society reached out to us, and glad to step in to help protect the museum and its collection,” said Keven Walker. “And we’re eager to continue the Society’s outstanding work. We will continue to tell the entire history of Port Republic – not just the Civil War era, but also the rest of its history, from its settlement and days as a bustling river port through its post-war history to today.”
“We’ve always seen the museum and the efforts of the Society as invaluable parts of the National Historic District, as shown by what we’ve invested in grants, staff time, and other support over the years,” added Walker. “Now we’ll be able to bring our larger resources of staff, knowledge, and expertise to fulfilling the museum’s mission – and our own.”
The National Historic District is currently working on a new schedule and operating hours for the museum; stay tuned for more details. And the NHD will soon be undertaking some key projects for the museum, including updating and renovating the wayside signs in the village and completing a cell phone audio tour (already partially developed by the SPRP).
The audio tour will become one of a series being developed by the NHD, including an already-completed one for Winchester Civil War sites and an in-development tour for New Market.