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Weems-Botts House visitors center to reopen to public after 5-month renovation


DUMFRIES — Karleen Kovalcik has her work cut out for her.

A lot of the history in Virginia’s oldest town of Dumfries is anecdotal. Amateurs completed some of the archaeology studies done in the old port town that once rivaled other east coast ports during the 18th century.

Kovalick is the new site manager for the Historic Dumfries, Virginia (HDV), overseer of the Weems-Botts Museum, and keeper of the town’s history. She’ll be combing through not only the materials for the HDV library, but she’ll also be checking into the oral history of the town to try to separate fact from fiction.

“You back up your facts with sources, and you check photographs,” said Kovalcik, a Fairfax County native and recent graduate of West Virginia University. “A little folklore, an old wives talk, is OK as long as you say ‘this is folklore.'”

She’s now working at a museum that has developed a reputation for ghost stories, alleged hauntings, and Halloween overnight lock-ins, and replaces longtime HDV manager Joann Mills Barron.

The Weems-Botts House and Museum is famous for being home to the of biographer Parson Weems who chronicled the life of George Washington, and later the home of Benjamin Botts, an attorney who got Aaron Burr off after he was charged with treason. On Sept. 1, 2017, it will reopen to the public.

The museum has been closed since February, as the museum, often referred to as the Weems-Botts annex or visitors center, underwent a $6,000 renovation. New floors were installed, the library inside the visitors center reorganized, the rooms brightened, and furniture and artifacts shuffled around.

“The library was so dark and dingy,” said Brent Coulson, speaking of the visitors center before the remodel was completed.

The changes also mean the HDV headquarters will also now serve as the visitor’s center for the town. There, and in the adjacent Merchant Park, more than 7,500 people passing through each year will learn about the three remaining historic properties in the town — Williams Ordinary on Route 1, now home to the Prince William County Government Historic Preservation Division, the Weems-Botts House, and the Henderson House, a private residence.

HDV aims to remake itself by digging in deeper to the town’s history and by moving away from ghost stories for which Weems-Botts has developed a reputation.

“We’re not just known as the haunted house,” said Coulson. “We’re not just story tellers about ghosts.”

The town government supports HDV to the tune of $10,000 a year, as well as funded the renovation. Prince William County also gives $36,000 in hotel tax funds to the organization to support its efforts, said Coulson.

When the museum and visitor center reopens on Sept. 1, it will be open on Saturdays. All other days will be by appointment only, said Coulson.

Kovalcik said she’s looking for volunteer docents to come and give public tours of the museum. The only requirement is volunteers must be outgoing and like working with people. The history of the town, she says, will be taught to them.

“It’s hard to tell that this used to be a port city, not just the I-95 corridor,” said Kovalcik.

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