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Donated diaries give rare look at 20th century Blacksburg

March 15, 2019

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) — Joann Pack Sutphin didn’t have any sisters growing up — only brothers.

But thanks to the writings of her foremothers, she says she feels a bond with women who were her flesh and blood, and who helped form a part of the town’s history.

The kinship comes from the diaries of her great-grandmother Rosanna Croy Dawson, who used the large tomes to record everything in her life from about 1870 until shortly before her death in 1906. The pages contain business records for Sutphin’s great-aunt Ella Dawson’s dressmaker shop, employee timesheets, weather logs and personal events.

The words leap off the page, proving that Sutphin’s relatives were “survivors” whom she has come to know well.

“There are a lot of stories in these diaries,” Sutphin said. “It’s important Blacksburg history.

“I’ve studied the diaries and I feel like I know her (Rosanna Croy Dawson) and her daughters.”

The Dawson women worked hard in their home that was also the dressmaker business. The building is still standing on the corner of Wharton and Roanoke streets in Blacksburg’s historic 16 blocks.

To preserve the feelings and words found in the diaries, Sutphin donated Dawson’s writings to Virginia Tech Special Collections last fall. The writings are now beginning to be processed, said Kira Dietz, processing and acquisitions archivist for special collections at Newman Library, where the diaries will now stay.

And for historians, the books provide a valuable and rare window to what Blacksburg was like at the dawn of the 20th century.

“It really blends a lot of different aspects of Blacksburg life,” Dietz said.

Dietz said most other business ledgers from that time period just recorded transactions. And while that information is valuable and illustrative of town life in that time period, the diaries from Dawson offer more depth than is normally found.

They also offer a different perspective, as the Miss E.P. Dawson Dressmaker shop was likely the only woman-owned business in Blacksburg at that time, she said.

Sutphin had studied for her own curiosity in the past and even put together an article about Dawson’s writings for the local historical publication Smithfield Review.

Sutphin was inspired to donate the writings and a handful of photographs to the collection after speaking with her friend author and historian Kathleen Curtis Wilson, whom Sutphin knows through their mutual membership on the Smithfield-Preston Foundation Board of Directors.

Wilson, who has authored several works on textiles in Appalachia, said that the business records would be invaluable for historians researching how business worked during the late 1800s.

So Sutphin took some transcriptions her mother had done in the past to the library and asked if they would be valuable to Special Collections. That’s when Dietz sized up what was available.

The pieces are unlike anything she’d come across in about a decade at Tech, Dietz said. A woman’s perspective can be rare in historical texts from that period, especially in Southwest Virginia, she said.

Librarians are now working to digitize the diaries and the rest of the collection and will look at physical protections for the items in the future, Dietz said.

Sutphin thinks her family’s story can inspire others to look at the history in their own lives. Family mementos might end up having more meaning than one might think, she said.

“I hope people will look through their attics,” Sutphin said.

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Information from: The Roanoke Times, http://www.roanoke.com