By Mark St. John Erickson
12:00 AM EDT, March 21, 2014
Emma Leake Chenoweth was 61 years old when she became the founding regent of the Yorktown chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1922.
But after two years of urgent letters from the national headquarters of the DAR, her age and modest means didn't keep this enterprising woman from attempting something many people considered futile.
Working alongside her members, she sold pies and cakes, staged a masked ball and produced plays and tea parties in a determined effort to buy and rescue the dilapidated but historic Custom House across from her Main Street home.
Then they marked the 143rd anniversary of the 1781 American and French victory at Yorktown with a dedication ceremony so ambitious it left some observers gaping.
Marshaling all the resources at their command, Chenoweth and her members wrote letters, made calls and pulled the strings of friendship and family deftly, promoting their preservation project with such fervor that the inaugural Yorktown Day ceremony on Oct. 19, 1924 drew the governor and his wife as well as 2,000 people.
One thousand soldiers from Camp Eustis marched down Main Street to the Yorktown Monument, joined by a column of sailors. The battleship Wyoming saluted the patriotic rites from the York River.
What resulted was so much new and sustained attention that the landmark Revolutionary War battlefield — which was threatened by the development of a golf course — was designated a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover on Dec. 30, 1930.
“It took a lot of stamina and a lot of faith for Mrs. Chenoweth and her ladies to make this project work — especially when a lot of people were calling them crazy,” says former Department of Historic Resources historian Mary Ruffin Hanbury, now a North Carolina preservation consultant.
“These women were the ones who took the initiative — who made these issues important. And they went at it with missionary zeal.”
You can find read and see more about Chenoweth, the preservation of the Yorktown Custom House and the 1931 dedication of Colonial National Monument in my upcoming Women's History Month profile slated for Sunday, March 30.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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