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Colonial Beach Museum celebrates town’s past

The Museum at Colonial Beach turns 15 years old today, but the history behind it spans more than 100 years.

The Colonial Beach Historical Society will host an anniversary ceremony today to remember the 1999 opening of the museum and the transformation of the historic building.

The building, originally built as an office in 1892 by former Mayor and Chief of Police William Billingsley, had many roles until it became what it is today. Uses included the town’s first school, the town’s utilities company, telephone company and gas company.

When the structure started to deteriorate in the 1980s, the town purchased the building and scheduled its demolition.

However, the Historical Society convinced the town to preserve the building, and leased it with the intention of creating a museum.

John Biemeck, who served as the town’s vice mayor and Historical Society president at the time, spearheaded the project.

“I was the one who really took this thing over,” he said.

In 1998, the society launched a fundraising campaign and found the money to restore the building to its original state. Work involved removing a store window, relocating the front door and remaking the original porch that was removed in the 1920s.

“It doesn’t sound like much,” Biemeck said, “but it was an enormous amount of work.”

Before construction could begin, volunteers cleared out piles of “junk,” Biemeck said. After that, he said, the number of motivated volunteers tapered off.

But Biemeck was determined. “I’m a man of few words and a lot of action,” he said. “I just wanted to get it done.”

Since he had a knack for carpentry, Biemeck did most of the work himself, he said, using a photograph from 1905 of the original building to determine the measurements of the original porch, balcony, pickets, windows and door.

The measurements were so accurate that when the new support columns were placed for the porch, the footings of the original porch were found.

The work was finally finished in the spring of 1999, complete with an access ramp for the handicapped, and the hunt began for beach memorabilia to fill the new museum.

The community came together to help create the museum’s exhibits, supplying artifacts including souvenirs from the town’s gambling days, a sack of flour from the old flour mill, a bottle of Jumbo soda from the former bottling company and stationary from the Colonial Beach Hotel.

Today, the museum displays rotating exhibits of the town’s history, including a rare collection of Native American artifacts, including carved stones and pottery shards, dating back centuries.

“It really tells an incredible story about our Native American history,” said museum curator Mitzi Saffos.

Another exhibit features Cooper’s Store, which previously occupied the town’s library and Town Center and used the motto, “We sell everything.”

Saffos even has an outfit of her own, which she purchased from the old store in the 1970s, in the exhibit.

The “Waterman’s Room,” which opened in December 1999, is a permanent exhibit that showcases generations of fishermen and oystermen who have made their living on the Potomac.

In the past 10 years, renovations to the building have been frequent, including a new roof.

Thanks to the Lighthouse Project, a grant sought by Saffos from BB&T, the museum’s floors were replaced, and the Waterman’s Room floors were restored to their original state.

For the small beach community, the museum embracing the town’s long history will always have its own story to tell.

“The museum is the most important artifact itself,” said Saffos.

Regina Weiss 540/374-5444


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