New Balch Exhibit Details 200 Years of Leesburg’s History

One of the most significant exhibits on Leesburg’s history opened today at the Thomas Balch Library.

The Charles A. Johnston Collection provides a rare glimpse into the daily life of residents from the middle to late 18th century to the 20th century.

The exhibit, which runs through the end of October, represents selections from the voluminous collection that has been donated as gifts to the library over the past decade.

Charles Anthony Johnston (1806-1877) lived at 21 W. Loudoun St. (today’s address 103 Loudoun St.) in Leesburg. [Charles A. Johnston Collection/Balch Library]
Charles Anthony Johnston (1806-1877) lived at 21 W. Loudoun St. (today’s address 103 Loudoun St.) in Leesburg.
[Charles A. Johnston Collection/Balch Library]
       The exhibit includes personal items, books and photographs relating to homes, businesses, and places where the Johnston family lived, worked or went to school over more than 200 years.

The display also includes items from the family’s personal life—children’s toys, favorite recipes and materials related to Jack Johnston, who died as a child in 1907, and his doctor John Gibson. Gibson, a local physician and co-founder of the first Loudoun hospital, tried to save the boy with emergency surgery.

For the researcher and those interested in Leesburg’s history, the exhibit is just a slice of what ultimately will be available to the public.

Curator of Manuscripts and Archives Laura E. Christiansen is heading up the project, with the aid of archivist Ben Tayloe.

On Oct. 23, Tayloe will lead a walking tour of some of the sites mentioned in the collection, including the venues where the family had its various businesses.

“The Johnston Collection really is an extraordinary record of the memories and history of a Leesburg family,” Christiansen said as she put the final touches on the exhibit.

The collection is by far the largest the library has ever accepted and processed, Christiansen said, estimating it at about 40 cubic feet of materials—covering artifacts, photographs and daguerreotypes, letters, books, business records, ledgers, and recipes.

“It’s so diverse. It’s difficult to sum up,” Christiansen said. To Balch Director Alexandra S. Gressitt, that diversity is what makes the collection so unusual. “It represents a slice of Leesburg history,” she said, allowing people to see how life was lived in the town over a span of more than two centuries.

A decade ago, a family representative contacted the Balch, asking if there were interest in accepting the collection, Gressitt said Monday, recalling the initial two boxes that were brought in.

“There were board games that you don’t see now, books, items from the various stores they owned and examples of activities that might have occurred during the 19th and 20th centuries,” Gressitt said.

The collection is much bigger than just genealogy. “It gives a sense of place—and we didn’t have anything quite like that,” she said, likening the diverse collection to a tree, still with all its leaves on the branches—documenting family life, society and businesses of the time.

Tayloe will give a talk on the collection in March at the library, the date to be announced.

The Loudoun Library Foundation provided grants in 2014 and 2015 to process the collection.

Online registration for the tour is requested at Printed booklets are planned to allow self-guided tours.

Balch Library is located at 208 W. Market St.

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