By TOM FAZIO
A Fayette county man who has created the largest private museum on West Virginia history faces a problem. The problem: “Who will take my place after I leave this earth, and continue my work?”
This puzzler concerns the Reverend Shirley Donnelly of Oak Hill. Mr. Donnelly, a retired Army Colonel and chaplain of years service, has a unique collection of over 500-odd relics, and speaks of it with the enthusiasm of a man who has discovered rare treasure. Col Donnelly, 64, lives outside the Oak Hill city limits on a 25-acre farm-estate named , “Upson Downs”– a jumbling of the words as he calls it.
Behind his well-kept, two-story home stands the Shirley Donnelly Library, a masterpiece in stone construction. A visitor to Upson Downs eyes this multicolored structure with awe because of the perfect sandblasted inscriptions on the rooks from West Virginia’s 55 counties, and he notes, historical cornerstones. Three years were spent collecting the rocks. Construction of the building was donated by a Charleston firm.
Inside the library are two executive desks surrounded by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves containing some 15,000 books and booklets. Next to the Colonel’s desk, which is cluttered like one of a typical newsroom, is a portable typewriter and table. Ironically, the other desk is neat, with only a green blotter and brown leather index file folder on top. This desk is reserved for his dally visitors.
The Colonel is a tall, heavy set man with a light sunburned complexion and thinning gray hair. His wide-set brown eyes peer from behind a pair of dark rimmed glasses, He speaks slowly, distinctly, and intellectually. When answering questions on history, he has a remarkable memory for names, places, an d dates. For his 64 years, he moves with abundant energy. While working in his library, he wears a white shirt, rolled slightly at the sleeves, neatly pressed trousers, and house slippers. Sometimcs he wears a weather beaten, red leather baseball cap.
The Colonel delights in showing his unique collection to visitors and friends. In fact, many people send him antiques, ancient manuscripls, and letters of significant importance. Some of these donors he has never seen.
His important letters include ones written by Fanny Crosby, noted hymn writer; Phillips Brooks, composer of the carol ‘0’ Little. Town of Bethlehem”; Henry M. Stanley, who went to Africa in 1871 to find the missionary David Livingstone; Henry Ward Beecher, Civil War preacher; Jefferson Davis, Confederate States President; William Jennings Bryan, U. S. Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915; Robert Browning, famed English poet; Florence Nightingale, the apostle of reform in the nursing profession, and King George d II, who ruled England from 1760 to 1820 when colonial America won its independence. Col Donnelly also has the original letter in which Union General W. T. Sherman said, “War is hell.”
Col. Donnelly has one of the first published copies of W. L. Hobbes’ immortal song, “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land,” He considers this document his most prized possession.
Oilier Civil War mementos include a $500 Confederate bond, several old slave deeds, Confederate money, and the New York Herald’s front page account a of Lincoln’s assassination in 1805.
Among old records, he has a complete file, with pictures, on, the Hatfield and McCoy families, whose blood-letting feud years ago received national prominence.
Adjacent to the Donnelly Library is the private museum. The museum is a long, narrow room attached to his garage. Inside are two glass cases on tables surrounded by four walls lined from top to bottom with relics. Each article has a brief description printed nearby on a white card. The Colonel has a compass from the battleship Oregon; a German swastika emblem that had hung over Hitler’s office chair in Berlin; an Iron Cross, dated 1939, from Hitler’s desk; World War II German helmets, swords, and a tank periscope; Civil War rifles, shells and shot, bayonets, uniforms, swords, bullets and belt buckles; a century-old facsimile of the Declaration of Independence; some 150 Indian arrowheads, pipes, and tomahawks; early settlers’ tools, shoes, household implements, animal traps, muskets, and powder horns; a complete file on all Fayette county newspapers ever published, and a century-old pair of elk horns.
Opposite the library, stands a log cabin with a breezeway that was originated in southern (?) homes. Col. Donnelly says the cabin was built in 1878 at Dempsey, near Fayetteville, and was moved (log by log) to his estate. Inside are the pioneer implements typical of the log cabin era. Outside the cabin is a century-old mill stone found near Dempsey.
Between the cabin and library stands one of the two remaining pillars from the old state capital building that was destroyed by fire in Charleston in 1921. Near the pillar rests a jail shaped, chiseled rook, about two feet in diameter. Col. Donnelly says this stone, weighing some 400 pounds, was found in the center of an Indian mound near Fayetteville.
To the rear and right of the library, partly obscured by a tall evergreen tree, are the foundation stones from Fort Donnelly, built at Lewisburg in 1778.
Another unusual rock was received several weeks ago. The Standard Oil Company sent a piece of iron ore recovered from a 14,000 foot penetration into the earth.
Rare books are of special Interest to Rev. Donnelly. He considers his book collection on West Virginia history as the state’s most complete. He says his special library on Fayette county history has no equal among such collections in the world.
Rev. Donnelly has spent 30 years collecting thick volumes on Civil War campaigns, including. those written about the naval actions of that war.
Other interesting books include one of the rarest state books in existence, titled “Chronicles of Border Warfare.” Only 300 copies were printed in the first edition. Col Donnelly has nine. One has a table of contents which increases the value of the book. Another he has was owned by Lewis Wetzel, Indian fighter, with the inside cover autographed by others of the succeeding Wetzel generation. Another valuable book in his possession is the “Journal of Patrick Gass.” Gass, a journalist and native of what is now West Virginia, accompanied Lewis and Clark on their western expedition. The book includes maps of the famous journey. Col. Donnelly has another book of ancient vintage printed by Benjamin Franklin in 1747. He also prizes H. E. Danford’s “Trail of the Gray Dragoon.”
Having read of Col. Donnelly’s love for history, one should expect to know more about the man himself and his accomplishments.
Aside from being a former Army chaplain, he is presently minister of the Crab Orchard Baptist church, south of Beckley. He is also a bank director, newspaper columnist, veterans’ hospital chaplain, author, and farmer.
Clarence Shirley Donnelly was born in 1895 at Rock Castle in Jackson county. He received his early education in the “common” schools there and later was graduated from Charleston high school in 1908.
He entered West Virginia University for a period before World War I. When war came, he enlisted in the Army and served 10 months in preparing to become a chaplain and to earn his commission, but the war ended and he returned to civilian life. He continued his studies at the University of Wisconsin, graduating in 1915. He went on to the Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Va., and received a degree in theology in 1921.
His. first ministerial assignment was for two years at the Main Street Baptist church in Petersburg, Va. In 1923, he became pastor of the Oak Hill Baptist Church and served there until World War II.
In 1930, Rev. Donnelly was commissioned as chaplain and first lieutenant in the Officers’ Reserve Corps. Two years later he advanced to captain and assistant division chaplain of the 38th Division, at the time a National Guard Division.
When World War II came, he was called to active duty at Camp Shelby, Miss. In July, 1941, he was promoted to division chaplain with the rank of major. Eleven months later he became assistant corps chaplain of the IV Corps at Camp Beauregard La. A month later he was corps chaplain.
In September 1942, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He was graduated from chaplains school in Cambridge, Mass. and was sent to Fort Lewis, Wash. In November, 1943, he reporter to Camp Young, Calif., and was made a full colonel.
Two months later Col. Donnelly was with the IV Corps In Casablanca, Africa. Several weeks later he was appointed Chaplain to the Seventh Army. After six months, the Seventh moved to Naples, Italy. In Europe, Col Donnelly participated in four major campaigns. After Germany surrendered, he spent six months in the occupation forces there. Since 1946, Col. Donnelly has served at the Crab Orchard church.
In his entire ministry. Rev Donnelly has conducted 11,075 funerals, ”committed” (as he puts it) 932 weddings, and has baptized over 1,000 people. On one occasion, he baptized 86 to set a ‘state record.’
His journalistic career began early. From 1924 to 1941, he published the Church Messenger for the Oak Hill Baptist church. In 1928, he published a weekly newspaper, the Oak Hill News. From 1925 to 1949 he served as special writer for the Fayette. Tribune. Since May, 1935, he has written a daily column –“Yesterday and Today” –for the Beckley Post-Herald.
He has 18 books and booklets on history and religion to his credit. The Colonel estimates his income from writing has exceeded $40,000.
As an office holder, Rev. Donnelly is a charter member of the West Virginia Historical Society and was elected president in 1956 or a one-year term. He has served as moderator for the Raleigh County Baptist Association for 12 different terms of one ear each. He served. as president of the West Virginia Baptist Ministers’ Association from 1935 to 1936. In 1938, he was elected vice president of the state Baptist convention. He has been a trustee of Alderson-Broaddus college for the past 16 years and has been awarded an honorary doctorates’ degree in divinity there. He was a charter member of the Oak Hill Rotary Club in 1923 and remained as club secretary for 16 years to establish a world record in that capacity for the international organization. In 1957, he was president of the Oak Hill club.
He has an honorary doctorates’ degree in literature from Beckley College. Rev. Donnelly estimates his annual income from his present seven occupations at $14,000. He chuckles by saying, “This isn’t a bad Income for a man my age.” Regarding visitors, the Colonel says an average of 50 persons visit him daily. Many are students and friends with a curiosity about history. Some are high ranking military men and industrialists who have read or heard of his reputation as historian and collector of valuable relics. Usually they add another item of history to his ever-growing museum and library.
When asked what may happen to his private collection after he leaves this earth, Rev. Donnelly replied in a solemn manner: “Gee, this has been worrying me to death. My wife doesn’t take an interest in this sort of thing, and it looks as though I’ll have to encourage someone interested in history to study under me for several years to learn how to keep it going.”