Letters from Radford’s Past on “Antiques Roadshow”

1. Sue Bell, great-great-granddaughter of Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton, with the binder of Wharton documents she took to the “Antiques Roadshow.” Courtesy Sue Bell.
1. Sue Bell, great-great-granddaughter of Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton, with the binder of Wharton documents she took to the “Antiques Roadshow.” Courtesy Sue Bell.

Everyone dreams of making it to the PBS “Antiques Roadshow” and appearing on a televised segment. For Sue Bell, descendant of the City of Radford’s Gen. Gabriel C. and Nannie Radford Wharton, this dream became a reality. Her segment will be televised Monday, May 21 at 8 p.m. on local affiliate Blue Ridge PBS in Roanoke.

Painting of Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton produced during the Civil War by artist William D. Washington. Courtesy Sue Bell.
Painting of Gen. Gabriel C. Wharton produced during the Civil War by artist William D. Washington. Courtesy Sue Bell.

Bell, who is from Massachusetts, will share three letters that illustrate intriguing aspects from the history of the United States in the mid-1800s. They also reveal details about the life of her great-great-grandfather, a Civil War general who lived in Radford from 1865 until his death in 1906. Considered one of Southwest Virginia’s leading entrepreneurs in the late 19th Century, Wharton was also a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, where he sponsored legislation to establish the land grant institution at Blacksburg, now Virginia Tech.

Bell, who is an avid watcher of the show, says she enlisted friends and relatives to help her win a lottery ticket for the Newport, Rhode Island episode filmed last September. Now in its 22nd year, “Antiques Roadshow” features appraisals of antiques and collectibles by experts from leading auction houses and independent dealers. According to the PBS website, the program averages 8.5 million viewers each week and is public broadcasting’s most-watched ongoing series.

Instead of bringing the usually allotted two items, Bell said she decided to take a binder full of her grandfather’s letters and let the appraiser choose which pieces piqued his interest. “Immediately, the appraiser got excited as I explained who General Wharton was and started reading some passages from the letters,” Bell says.

Among the letters to appear on the May 21 segment is one Wharton wrote while working in the Arizona territory as an engineer for the United States Land Department in the 1880s. In this letter, he provided a vivid account to his wife, Nannie, of life in the expanding west when he had a near death run-in with Geronimo, a prominent leader of the Native American Chiricahua Apache tribe. Two additional letters were selected, Bell said, including a letter to Wharton from one of the American Civil War’s most famous generals.

According to Scott Gardner, director of Radford’s Glencoe Mansion, the letters are part of an extraordinary collection of thousands of documents the Wharton family has saved for over 150 years. Gardner said the museum is especially excited to be part of a project Bell is currently working on with historian William Davis, a retired director of the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. Within the next two years, Bell and Davis plan to publish more than 500 wartime letters written by her great-great-grandparents.

Glencoe Mansion, Museum and Gallery located in Radford, Virginia. Historic home of Gen. Gabriel C. and Nannie Radford Wharton.
Glencoe Mansion, Museum and Gallery located in Radford, Virginia. Historic home of Gen. Gabriel C. and Nannie Radford Wharton.

The Wharton family built and occupied the Glencoe Mansion for over 100 years. Throughout 2018, Glencoe Mansion, Museum & Gallery is celebrating its 20 anniversary. The site is a three-in-one experience: House Museum, History Exhibits and Art Gallery.