By Lanier Laney
The word docent comes from the Latin word docēns, which means “to teach.” And that’s exactly what the dedicated docents of the historic 208-year-old John Mark Verdier House museum downtown do at 801 Bay Street. They teach the history of Beaufort using the house and its exhibits as textbooks.
Says Betsy Kinghorn, a docent for eight years, Historic Beaufort Foundation Board member and former Verdier House Committee Chairperson, “People are in Beaufort from all over the world. We want them to leave here loving Beaufort, and knowing why this place is important. We always attempt to give people a real sense of
Beaufort’s history and the people who have lived here. In the Verdier House, we have added exhibits that go beyond the time of the Verdier family to Beaufort’s wartime history with the Beaufort Volunteer Artillery and Bay Street during the Civil War, and on to Robert Smalls and Beaufort’s Reconstruction history.”
David Hecht, also a docent for eight years, adds, “We try to be entertaining and friendly and to make them feel welcome and relaxed during the tour. We have had visitors from all over the world, including England, France, Germany, Spain, Japan, Korea, Ireland, Scotland, Canada and Australia, to name just a few. Several years ago one of my tours consisted of two couples, who were sitting in the basement of the Verdier House as the tour began. When I asked where they were from, one couple named a village in the Southwest of England. To everyone’s surprise, the other couple responded that they too were from the same village! While they had never previously met, they were last seen having lunch together.”
Betsy said, “The Verdier House is the only antebellum home in Beaufort that is regularly open for tours. As such, it is a great introduction into the lifestyles of pre-Civil War Beaufort and the beautiful details of the houses that were built then. The house is also the first house in Beaufort that was intentionally preserved from demolition in the 1940’s by a concerned committee of Beaufort citizens. That Committee to Save the Lafayette Building (named so because the Revolutionary War hero General Marquis de Lafayette spoke on the porch during his visit in 1824) evolved into Historic Beaufort Foundation, which then proceeded to have a big hand in rescuing a long list of other Beaufort homes and buildings. Just as HBF is intensely involved in the preservation of Beaufort’s historic buildings, we are also interested in educating students and adults about Beaufort’s history. The Verdier House is an ideal venue to begin to tell the story of Beaufort — why it developed just where it did on the river, why it was a vital part of America’s history in those antebellum years, and what happened to the town and its people and how everything changed after the Civil War to make us what we are today. We love to be able to tell the stories, then send people out to Parris Island’s museum or Penn Center and other nearby places to help people understand this unique area.”
But the tours haven’t occurred without their funny moments. The knowledgable Sandy Patterson, volunteer coordinator and house manager of the Verdier House, has been a docent for the past 12 years and is always amazed at what comes out of visitors’ mouths — sometimes literally. Sandy said, “I once was half way through a tour when a woman exclaimed, ‘Wait! — I left my tooth at the restaurant!’ The woman ran out the front door and across the street. After a few minutes she came running back in with her big front tooth in a napkin. She then proceeded to pop it back in and we went on with the tour.”
Sandy always loves what kids have to say. “Once we had a family whose 8-year-old son watched intently as I described the beautiful fireplace mantelpiece and how it was made. I was happy he was so eager to learn. Then when I finished, he pointed above the mantel and exclaimed, ‘That would be the perfect spot for a big flat screen TV!’ ”
Betsy Kinghorn also recalls happy occasions. “I will never forget the veteran who came with his parents to the house just before the Lt. Dan Weekend two years ago. He had lost a leg in Iraq and was on crutches. I told him about all our steps, but he did not seem concerned. And he climbed every set of stairs in the house faster than I did — a courageous, strong Wounded Warrior who also loved Beaufort’s history.”
This being the month of Halloween, the question most often asked by visitors: “Is there a ghost in the house?”
And the answer from the docents is a resounding “yes!” — and more than one. In one of the upstairs rooms, the docents remark that there is often a sudden chilly feeling, or someone will get goosebumps for no apparent reason — even on the warmest of days. Visitors comment on it even when the docents don’t mention it. And activity seems to increase around certain times of the year.
Sandy described an ominous and sad feeling she once felt in part of the house: “I went upstairs to check on the house when I came one morning and found a few things in disarray, doors were open which I know I had closed, stuffing was on the floor from a cushion, and several other things were out of order. So I straightened everything up and went downstairs to begin the daily tours. I had a group of visitors for the first tour and everything was going fine until I got to the upstairs back room. As I walked from place to place in there, I had a strong feeling that there was someone on the side of the bedroom. But no one could be seen. We next went in the drawing room next door and it felt like many other people were in there besides just the people on the tour. A cold feeling of sadness came over me and suddenly the wind blew one of the shutters closed and I must have jumped a foot. But I didn’t say anything to the tourists. When I came downstairs I told my supervisor and she said she had felt things upstairs that day as well. The executive director at that time did some research and it appears that John Mark Verdier Jr., the son of the builder of the house, was very ill and dying in that bedroom around that date; and that there were family members and friends in the drawing room waiting for him to die.”
Ghosts aside, when it comes to the Verdier family, Mariann Golobic, a docent for 12 years, said that many descendants have visited the house over the years and that she loves learning new things from people on the tours.
Says Mariann, “I like being involved in just this small way with downtown Beaufort and sharing what I have learned about what life was like here in the 1800’s, the effects of the Civil War and the preservation effort that is ongoing in the city. I learn something new everyday I’m at the Verdier House, often from one of our guests who visit from all over the map; Dubai and Wales most recently.”
Grace Harrigan, the longest serving docent at 21 years, said, “When I first moved to Beaufort, a neighbor asked me to get involved with HBF and the Verdier House. That was in 1991 and I am still loving it!”
In fact, adds Betsy, “We need more docent volunteers who want to learn and share Beaufort’s history. It is a job that can fit into a variable time schedule, because each docent can sign up for the times that his or her schedule permits. Training is provided, and docents learn so much history as they lead others to appreciate it.”
The job has more ramifications than one can imagine. These “oral historians” and the other half dozen who also volunteer at the Verdier House, stand as guardians and transmitters of Beaufort’s past, helping it come to life for scores of visitors from all over the world for whom they may be the only Beaufortonians they ever talk with or get to ask questions of about Beaufort’s unique past. They are true ambassadors of the town’s history and its buildings and how “we came to be” in this corner of the world and why; by sharing their passion for Beaufort and its history daily with many varied visitors.
GET THE DETAILS
• Verdier House is open Monday-Saturday, with docent-guided tours every hour on the half hour from 10:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. $10. Phone: 843-379-6335. Closed Sundays and holidays.
• If you would like to be a part of their work at the Verdier house or join the Historic Beaufort Foundation and learn more about all their programs, go to www.historicbeaufort.org or call 843-379-3331.
• Upcoming Historic Beaufort Foundation events include the Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens from Oct 26-28; and “Palates for Preservation at Panini’s Wild Carolina Italian Wine Dinner.” This fundraiser will be at Panini’s Thursday, Oct. 18, at 6:30 p.m.