Post written by Karen Quina Doyle
The first thing Martha Heiskell made me do was promise not to tell her age. She did, however, tell me it was okay to say that she was born in Blacksburg in the ’20s. You do the math. Either way, her age doesn’t matter, except to say that she is the very essence of refined grace, impeccable character, and endless charm that only women of a certain age and era possess and embody. It has served her well: she is celebrating 44 years as the proprietor of Downtown Blacksburg’s bedrock antiques shop, Heirloom Originals.
If These Walls Could Talk
Heirloom Originals is more like a living museum than a business and Martha its worthy curator. She inherited the house, in which the shop is based, from her maternal grandmother in 1940. It was built in 1872, the same year neighboring Virginia Tech opened.
Martha took me through Downtown Blacksburg’s modest beginnings over a laminated vintage photograph she pulled from a drawer.
“Blacksburg’s town limit ended at Main and Giles Road. It was all open farmland with woods full of walnut trees,” she recalled fondly, as she pointed to a spot on the picture just west of the house. “People would go to Mr. Reynolds’ Lumber Yard, which was next door to the shop in the ‘20s. They would pick up logs to take over to Mr. W. E. Broce’s planing mill on what is now Progress Street, so they could make a fine piece of furniture,” she continued. “Coal from the local mines would be taken by horse and wagons to heat the buildings at Tech,” she went on, recalling every detail of the carefully preserved photograph.
For many years, the little house was rented for forty dollars per month, with a fireplace in each room for heat and no indoor plumbing until the late twenties.
In 1917, Paul Derring, for whom Derring Hall was named, arrived at Tech to work with student programs. Blind from the age of 13, he met Katie Cook, who was living in the house at the time with her parents and her sister Mary. Katie began helping him with his correspondence, and the two fell in love and were married in 1921. Several years later, Paul became Blacksburg’s first YMCA director, a position he held until his retirement in 1966.
After renting the house to several other families, Martha decided to convert the house into an antique shop in 1964.
“I’ve always appreciated the arts in its many forms ~ art, art history, beautiful objects ~ whether made by a person or by God’s own hands,” she shared as the inspiration behind her decision to go into antiques after an early, beloved career as a second-grade school teacher, first at Blacksburg Elementary and then later in the sixties at Gilbert Linkous Elementary. “I don’t know why anyone would want plastic when they could have something of lasting value and beauty to leave as an heirloom to their children,” she wondered. ”I have customers come in all the time fondly recalling things like ‘My grandmother bought me the cutest little tea set from here when I was a little girl’. It makes me very humble…and very happy.”
Having lost her mother at the age of 49 and her father three months later at 57, Margaret J. Beeks, who was not only Martha’s 7th grade teacher but also the first principal for whom she worked during her time with the Montgomery County School System after graduating from Tech in 1948, became like a mother to Martha and a grandmother to her three children.
It was Miss Beeks who inspired Martha through art. “I lived for Miss Beeks’ art class. She opened the doors to the whole world for me there. She had traveled a lot,” Martha remembers. “One day, we were painting the Nile and ran out of cobalt paint, so Miss Beeks sent me down to Mr. Brown’s hardware store to pick up a little tube,” she reminisced, before being unfairly scolded for not getting the right color. “That nearly broke my heart,” she said, remembering how it felt to be wrongfully reprimanded by the teacher she worshiped.
“When I opened my shop, there she stood on the porch with this gift,” she lovingly recalls, showing me the wreath Miss Beeks made for her as a shopwarming gift with moss she had collected from the shoals of South Carolina. “It has hung on this door for 44 years.”
A Prized Collection
Today, the shop is brimming with something for everyone: china, porcelains, ceramics, art pottery. Cut glass from the Brilliant Period (1890-1915) takes up nearly an entire room; pieces made out of Martha’s favorite woods, walnut and cherry, here and there.
“To qualify as an antique, a piece must be at least 100 years old, but there are many items in here that go back to the mid-1800’s,” she attests.
Her oldest piece? A Canton platter from the 1700s with what they deciphered to be a Chinese Export Armorial Crest, circa 1785. The back of the piece bears what look like one-inch-wide brass staples along the spines of several primitive cracks — distinguishing mending methods that were employed through 1838. Though the piece is not for sale, Martha takes delight in relating a story about two men who came in looking for Jim Beam memorabilia. “No Jim Beam bottles, but isn’t my platter gorgeous?” she offered instead, before overhearing each of them asking the other how she would ever sell that broken platter as they made their way out the door. “I didn’t even have time to tell them that it was not for resale,” she knowingly confides.
“Let me show you my little Charlie in here,” she insisted, ushering me into another room. “He’s so wonderful.”
“Charlie” was the pet name given to the little boy whose likeness appeared in a painting she had acquired from the Bailey estate of Charleston, West Virginia, the forebears of which included an attorney general and several generations of judges. “Look at that little hat. He’s so cute!” she mused, with the kind of genuine affection usually assigned to doting grandmothers. “I think it’s sad that portraits get separated from their families over time.”
A collection of handsomely displayed teacups holds another story still. “I sold each one of these teacups to a gentleman who bought them for his wife’s birthday and Christmas year after year. When she passed, he asked me if I would like them back, all sixty-six,” she remembers. “Many items in the shop have come back a second and third time. I love it more than the day I first opened the door, so many memories.”
Martha cares for her inventory nearly as much as she cares for her customers — which is to say, a lot. She knows the detail of her stock down to the very last toothpick holder; she keeps a careful inventory, copied in her own hand, of every item in a red ledger I was lucky enough to see.
“I don’t consider this a store,” she confides. “This is where my friends come to visit.”
Having spent the afternoon with her, I understood the attraction. The proper woman, with a clear abiding faith and the warmth and congeniality of a dear friend, had won me over, too. Stop in the next time you’re passing by her Heirloom Originals shop on Main Street, and let her do the same for you.
Heirloom Originals is conveniently located at 609 North Main Street, next door to Castle’s Kettle and Pub. See you there!