This year marks a milestone in Mountain State Forest Festival history in more ways than one. As the 75th celebration of West Virginia's forest heritage approaches, the West Virginia Division of Culture and History is readying to share treasured textiles from the past that have always been a closely guarded secret until Maid Silvia becomes a queen.
Beginning Monday, the Division of Culture and History debuts "75 Years of the Mountain State Forest Festival," a comprehensive display of 31 Queen Silvia gowns, which represent each decade of the Forest Festival and various designs and styles. To celebrate the exhibit's opening Monday at the Culture Center in Charleston, there will be a public reception at 6 p.m., and a program in the State Theater at 7 p.m.
The celebration of Queens Silvia and the royal court at the Culture Center is the brainchild of West Virginia Division of Culture and History Commission Randall Reid-Smith. He proposed the exhibit after he participated in the 2010 induction ceremony of the Maple Leaf Society, a branch of the Forest Festival created to promote and preserve the heritage of the royal court. Members of the Maple Leaf society are former Queens Silvia and their parents, former Maids of Honor and their parents, former Directors General and former Directors of the Queen's Department.
Photo Courtesy of Tyler Evert, West Virginia Division of Culture & History
West Virginia Division of Culture and History intern Caroline Kaufman prepares the dress of Queen Silvia LIV, Amy Jennifer Byrd Bally, for display in the ‘75 Years of the Mountain State Forest Festival’ exhibit, which features 31 gowns worn by former queens. The exhibit opens with a public reception at 6 p.m. Monday in the West Virginia Culture Center. It will remain on display through Oct. 23.
Nearly a month ago, Maple Leaf Society President Susie Kump and Vice President Carolyn Capelli met with Charles W. Morris III, Director of Museums, Caryn S. Gresham, Deputy Commissioner, and Betty G. Gay, Exhibits Coordinator, with the WV Division of Culture and History to implement Reid-Smith's vision. Kump and Capelli say Reid-Smith wanted a "first-class exhibit" of the "elaborate, beautifully designed" gowns from the decades to promote the 75th Forest Festival.
Following the meeting, Kump and Capelli began working to gather 25 to 30 former Queens Silvia gowns to give the public a comprehensive history of the festival. Throughout the last few weeks, the two have been driving to cities all across West Virginia to transport the dresses from the homes where they've been stored in order to prepare the gowns for the Culture Center. By mid-July, the queens' dresses were loaded onto a truck donated by Bob Wamsley for their trip to Charleston.
The collection of dresses that has been gathered includes the ivory, satin gown worn in 1930 by Queen Silvia I, Margaret Straley Lambie, who was from Ripley. Queen Silvia I's dress, which is in delicate condition and is being restored by a textile restoration specialist at the Division of Culture and History. It is owned by Elkins resident Martha Metheny.
Straley Lambie's coronation gown will be the only one representing the first decade of the Forest Festival. Although contact was made with living former queens from 1931 to 1941, their dresses were not available.
The gown collection begins again with Queen Silvia XIII's, the late Martha Gaines Wehrle, who served as queen the first year that the festival was reinstated following its break during the years of World War II. Wehrle had donated her gown to the festival.
From the 1950s are the dresses belonging to Queen Silvia XXI, 1957, Elizabeth Carol Kemper Wharton, and Queen Silvia XXII, Betty May Tompkins Futral. Kump says Tompkins Futral's dress hasn't been on display since she wore it for the 1968 Forest Festival.
In 1961, Rebecca Bess Kenny became Queen Silvia XXV, 1961. This year marks the 50th anniversary of her crowning and she plans to return to the Forest Festival in October; however, her gown will not be among those on display in Charleston. Kenny's dress was damaged beyond repair many years ago during a flood.
Other Queens Silvia from the 1960s whose gowns will be on exhibit include 1962, Katherine Stephenson Lutz Coppock, who lives in Vermont; 1963, Ann Clayton Bradt Hammann from St. Michaels, Maryland; and 1969, Charlotte N. Buzzard Hummell from Greensboro, Georgia. There will be one piece of Hummell's mint green gown accented in white mink and rhinestone trim missing from the display - her train. Years ago, the former queen's mother used the train's fabric to cover a chair. Buzzard Hummell told Kump and Capelli that each time they looked at that chair, they thought of the Forest Festival.
Another dress from the 1960s has been lost to the ages. Patricia Elizabeth Dofka Zielinsky, Queen Silvia XXXI, 1967, was unable to offer her gown because it had been stolen. Years ago, someone broke into her mother's home and made away with nothing else except for the dress in which she received her crown. Although the train was left behind, Dofka Zielinsky told Kump and Capelli she and her family could never understand why someone would have taken her gown, which had such personal, sentimental value to her.
The purple and ivory velvet gown of Queen Silvia XXXIV, 1970, Susan Staggers Tasker, will introduce the decade of the 1970s. Catherine Grace Sparacino Webb's pink velvet and magenta satin gown and train, trimmed in mink, from 1971 will be highlighted in the exhibit, as will gowns from 1973, Katherine Ann Huffman Falk; 1975, Lynette Lee Evans Luthmann; 1977, Mary Elizabeth Poindexter Williams, and 1978, Kimberly Ann Grant Uram. The exhibit also will feature a special skirt made for Huffman Falk from velvet squares of each of the princess gowns in 1973.
Six gowns from the 1980s will be part of the exhibit. They are the gowns of Laurie Refsland Buys, 1981, who currently lives in Australia and has donated her gown to the festival; Kristin Dodge Schoenbachler, 1982, from Portland, Oregon; Jean Williams LaRosa,1983, who lives in Florida, but stores her gown with her mother in Buckhannon; 1984, Carolyn Cline from Boston, Massachusetts, whose father, Jack, delivered her gown; 1985 Jennifer Fleming Ellison, 1985, who resides in Alabama, whose brother transported the gown to West Virginia; and 1987, Cynthia Walsh Rosiello, from Morgantown, who wore the only black velvet gown in festival history.
The 1990s are represented by Amy Jennifer Byrd Bally's burgundy velvet gown with quilted leaves, designed by Joan Markert from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Markert's first festival gown was in 1989 for Amy Vickers Fritz. Each of the gowns from the 1990s, showcased in the exhibit, were designed by Markert. Those gowns include the following queens: 1991, Jodie Elizabeth Landis; 1993, Gretchen Anne McLaughlin Stup; 1994, Jennifer Taylor Wotring; 1995, Megan Elizabeth Hartley; and 1997, Amy Caroline Capelli O'Hara.
Connie "Miss Connie" Linger of Elkins began designing gowns for Queen Silvia and her court in 2001. Her first gown was for Laura Phillips Hensley and it will be in the exhibit. Other gowns featured will be those of 2002, Jessica Brooke Legg; 2003, Mary Rennie Rowe; 2005, Anne Michaele Craig; 2007, Catherine Ann Wilkes; and 2008, Kimberly Dawn Cover Bennett.
In addition to the gowns, photographs, crowns, kneeling pillows and other Forest Festival memorabilia will be part of the "75 Years of the Mountain State Forest Festival" exhibit. It will be on display through Oct. 23 at The Culture Center, State Capitol Complex, 1900 Kanawha Boulvard East, Charleston.