Item Senior Staff Writer
Sentimental types often preserve treasured keepsakes to remind them of grandparents or other relatives who've died, sometimes passing the items down through several generations.
But after the passage of several decades, what do you do with a World War I uniform, or a Mexican general's chaps, or a trench warmer?
Sumter native Robert L. Brown and his cousin, Robert T. Brown, now a resident of West Palm Beach, Fla., decided the best thing they could do would be to share those now-historical items with all South Carolinians by donating them to the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.
Despite the Civil War focus of its name, conferred on it by the Daughters of the Confederacy who started the museum in 1896, the museum focuses on South Carolinians' roles in all military actions and is expanding its 20th-century collection.
It's expanding physically as well, adding a 4,500-square-foot space, about a 50 percent increase, that should be complete in time for the November 2007 opening of a World War I exhibit in conjunction with exhibits at the McKissick Museum, Historic Columbia Foundation, South Caroliniana Library and S.C. State Museum.
Brown said donating his grandfather's possessions was the right thing to do, though it took many hours of discussion between the cousins and their wives before they could decide to part with the heirlooms.
Eventually, though, the question of family fairness, the fear the items could one day end up on eBay and the desire to share a small piece of history led them to make the donation.
"You don't own history. You're a steward of it," Brown said. Knowing the items are now professionally tended is also a comfort, he said.
Brown donated more than 30 items from Robert Tillman Brown's time as a captain in World War I, including his uniform and swagger stick and items he picked up on the battlefield.
His cousin donated embroidered chaps believed to belong to Trinidad Rodriguez, a general and right-hand man to Pancho Villa.
Exactly how the family came by the chaps is lost to history, Brown said. His grandfather, a member of the 118th Infantry, was sent to Texas as part of a contingent attempting to capture Pancho Villa, a Mexican outlaw and revolutionary who had attacked Columbus, N.M.
His grandfather always said the chaps were given to him, Brown said, but he doesn't know why his grandfather was picked as the recipient. As a child, the question never occurred to him, and now it's too late to ask. But research has turned up some information, he said.
Rodriguez was killed some time before Brown's grandfather arrived on the scene, so it doesn't seem likely the chaps were pulled from his body and given directly to the young South Carolina captain. Instead, it seems the chaps were too valuable to be buried with their owner.
"What we suspect now is they were simply passed on to another officer, who I don't know. He's been lost in history," Brown said.
When that officer was killed, Brown said, his grandfather ended up with the chaps, which in turn ended up in his cousin's closet in Florida.
For years, Brown displayed his grandfather's items around his home. An Air Force lieutenant colonel who retired from Shaw Air Force Base in 1988, Brown has always had an interest in history, as well as an abiding respect for his grandfather, a man who always did the right thing.
The elder Brown served in the South Carolina House before becoming county clerk. He worked to help the poor and create humane living conditions for inmates on the chain gang, Brown said, all the while maintaining his presence as a take-charge disciplinarian.
"To my cousin and I, and to the family, he was a giant. ... he was referred to as The Chief," Brown said.
The museum is currently scanning photographs Brown loaned that help document the artifacts' history.
Museum spokeswoman Jai Cassidy Shaiman said Brown has been a great supporter of the museum for years. He donated his great-great grandfather's cavalry carbine and helped get the 5th S.C. Cavalry Regiment flag returned to the state in the 1990s, she said.