Eva O’Leary, an artist whose photographs are on exhibit at the Longwood Center for the Visual Arts through March 31, has never seen her great-great-grandmother’s wedding dress. O’Leary hasn’t seen the photographs that connect her professional work with her great-great-grandfather’s avocation.
Benedict Chatelain, however, has seen—and even touched—the delicate dress, worn in 1907 by a young bride who was an alumna of the State Normal School in Farmville, later known as Longwood University. Chatelain also has held in his hands scores of photographs taken by that young bride’s groom, who taught at the same school.
It’s exciting stuff for someone who loves history and its artifacts, and Chatelain, who works in the archives in Greenwood Library, loves to tell the story of how the items came into Longwood’s possession.
It all started with a letter from Elizabeth Kaites, granddaughter of the young couple and grandmother of O’Leary. Kaites knew about her grandparents’ connection to Longwood and had a large collection of their belongings that included not only the wedding dress but also personal correspondence, another dress and 160 early 20th-cenutury photographs, a number of them featuring Longwood students.
“She wanted the materials to go somewhere they could be preserved for future generations and used to tell the history of the university,” said Chatelain. Kaites donated the materials to Longwood in 2017.
The woman who wore the wedding dress was Mary Venable Cox, a relation of the woman for whom Cox Hall was named. She graduated from the State Normal School in 1900 and then traveled to New York to further her education at the Teachers College at Columbia University. After returning to Farmville in 1904 to teach algebra, she met John Chester Mattoon, who also was teaching at the college. His classroom subject was manual arts, but he apparently loved photography, capturing images not only of students in the archery and mandolin clubs but also of the Appomattox River and Buffalo Creek.
John and Mary married and had a family.
Chatelain hopes that the Mattoons’ great-great-granddaughter, O’Leary, will one day visit the archives to see the collection in person and find out about her ancestors.
“It would be a joy for me to get to help her learn something about her family that she didn’t know,” he said.
To see some of the photos from the collection, visit digitalcommons.longwood.edu/mattoon.