GUIDE LEADS BELLAMY MANSION JOURNEY
Walking into the Bellamy Mansion Museum in downtown Wilmington is a profound journey back into the antebellum South. And guiding you on the trip is the museum's chief volunteer, Wade Toth.
Toth is the backbone of the volunteer program at the historical mansion, which has been preserved to replicate the world of the Bellamy family. Physician and planter John Dillard Bellamy began construction of the house in 1859 to house his wife, nine children and nine slaves.
Toth is particularly passionate when describing the life of the Bellamy slaves, who were housed in separate quarters restored in 2013. The main house was built using slave labor and their craftsmanship is seen in the decorative plasterwork throughout the house.
"I want to interpret the entire property, not just the Bellamy family but also the other group of people who lived here," Toth said on a recent chilly winter day. "We are telling stories of both blacks and whites."
Toth said the U.S. census in the 1860s did not list the names of slaves, so finding out who the slaves were in the Bellamy mansion took some digging.
But Toth has managed to bring the slaves' reality to life during his tour of their quarters, which are in a separate brick building behind the house. Not many urban slave dwellings still exist and Toth's tour emphasizes the close quarters and having to live next to a privy and steaming wash room.
Toth has been with the Bellamy House since moving to Wilmington from New Orleans in 2007. In the Big Easy, the former educator, who was a dean of students in Louden County, Va., before retiring, gave tours of another antebellum home and is well versed in Southern history.
"I like to think of what I do here at the Bellamy House as an extension of my career in education," Toth said.
Toth especially likes engaging children and the occasional tourist who looks like he was dragged into the house.
"I ask them to look around the house and compare it with their houses today. What do you see that you have in your own homes?," Toth said. When they point out something that seems ordinary, like the mirrors in the parlor, Toth points out that the mirrors served a double role. Before electricity, people put up large mirrors to reflect candles to create more light in the room.
"My joy is helping people find out what went into the house, the technology and the people. I like to take what people know and give it context," Toth said.
In addition to giving tours and training volunteers, Toth serves as a liaison to the museum's board of directors. He dedicates his time to training and coordinating more than 150 active volunteers.
"My role is to recruit, retain and recognize," Toth said.
Toth said volunteers do much of the work at the mansion, from gardening to putting up Christmas decorations to organizing concerts.
He wants them to know they're valued. Every year the Bellamy House has a catered dinner for all volunteers, along with a lecture series, free walking tours in downtown Wilmington and evenings at Thalian Hall with free performances and wine and cheese.
"They've given so much to the mansion," Toth said. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for volunteers."