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Historian loved digging for details
BY JONAS BEALS
Local historian and frequent Free Lance–Star contributor Paula Felder died Tuesday. She was 84 years old.
Felder was born in Gulfport, Miss., but found her love of history in Fredericksburg, where she diligently studied the local people and places that played an integral role in the founding of our nation.
She unraveled mysteries obscured by time and uncovered little-known facts about prominent local citizens, particularly George Washington and his family, including brother-in-law Fielding Lewis and parents Mary Ball and Augustine.
Felder wrote a number of books about Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, always relying on primary source documents and contemporary newspaper accounts to unearth new facts and overturn decades or even centuries of accepted knowledge.
She challenged the prevailing view that Mary Ball Washington, George’s mother, was a capricious, shrewish woman who made life difficult for her son. Her portrait of a determined, thoughtful, respected person challenged those previous notions and gave scholars reason to think differently about the mother of our first president.
Fellow historian Barbara Willis co-authored a “Handbook of Historic Fredericksburg, Virginia” with Felder. She said Felder was interested in every little nuance of local history, and always kept an open mind when researching a subject.
“She was a very interesting person to work with,” Willis said. “She had a sharp mind and she didn’t suffer fools.”
Felder was a regular contributor to The Free Lance–Star’s Town & County magazine.
“She had strong opinions and wasn’t afraid to dispute prevailing historical beliefs,” said Gwen Woolf, former editor of Town & County. “She would debate the most minute details, but had a sense of humor about it.”
Felder also organized the local community of amateur historians by founding The Jawbone Society, a historical research group that met regularly to pool resources and offer support for each other’s projects. In order to publish her work, and the work of her peers, Felder created her own publishing company—Historic Publications.
Her books offer readers an accessible path to events that happened more than 200 years ago. She tried to write for the lay person, not the academic.
“History is so much more interesting than facts and figures,” she once said in an interview with The Free Lance–Star.
But local history wasn’t her only passion. As the mother of a daughter with Down syndrome, Felder was instrumental in expanding the region’s network of group homes for intellectually disabled residents.
For those reasons and more, her death left a void in the Fredericksburg community.
“I enjoyed every minute I spent with Paula,” Willis said. “She was really a delightful, very educated person. It’s a loss to our community.”
Jonas Beals: 540/368-5036