Museum’s shop owner banking on tourist upswing

By Bryan Gentry

Published: June 1, 2009

Harry Lilly expects tourism to take off in Appomattox, and he’s expanding his well-known gift shop and museum on U.S. 460 to be ready for more visitors.

Lilly, owner of Lee-Grant Civil War Gift Shop, recently refinanced the property so he can renovate it. The site’s buildings are getting new roofs now. Later this summer he wants to replace the façade and remodel a storage room to increase the size of his store by a third.

He said selling Confederate bullets, flags and antiques is no way to get rich. But he thinks he can afford to expand, especially now that the Museum of the Confederacy has plans for a satellite location in Appomattox.

“I think that once the Museum of the Confederacy comes in … that it’s going to increase tourism enough to support it,” Lilly said.

“There’s going to be a big difference in this town” as tourism increases, he said. “It’s going to be a turning point in Appomattox.”

Lilly bought the shop 26 years ago when it was a motel with a small corner devoted to Civil War items. He previously had managed a campground, and he planned to grow the motel business by adding a campground in back. However, a taste for local history took the business in a different direction.

Vincent Pfab, a collector of Civil War artifacts, offered to sell items at Lilly’s motel. He also got Lilly involved in the search for more items, sweeping the grounds of battle sites with metal detectors.

Lilly became a historian himself, and one room at a time he converted the motel into a gift shop and museum.

He said running a motel would be more profitable, but less enjoyable.

“It was time in life to do what I enjoyed, instead of clean up after someone else’s mess,” Lilly said.

The two shops on Lilly’s property are full of items related to the Civil War. The gift shop sells jigsaw puzzles depicting Civil War scenes, U.S. flags, belt buckles, magnets, and dozens of products with the Confederate flag on them, including swimming trunks.

The museum displays more serious items: slave shackles, bullets and cannonballs from Civil War battlefields; books; portraits of Civil War heroes and money from the era. Some are for sale, but more rare items are not.

On a tour of the museum, Lilly uses his collection to expound on the story of the Civil War. He holds several different types of bullets and explains how new kinds of guns were being developed, changing the art of war. New guns made it easier to fight from greater distances and while running across a field.

“The people were trained for one type of warfare, and (then) warfare changed completely,” Lilly said. That’s a key reason why the war had so many casualties, he said.

Lilly has started selling replicas of Lula McLean’s rag doll, which a Union soldier took from the site of the Confederate surrender. The doll is displayed in Appomattox Court House National Park. A seamstress makes replicas of it for Lilly to sell.

Lilly is 77 years old and runs the site along with his wife, Carolyn, and one daughter. He doesn’t want to retire. “It’s not a job for me. I enjoy it,” he said. “When I get up in the morning, I look forward to opening the door.”

“I’m proud of what I have, and what I’ve made here,” he said.

©2009 Media General Communications Holdings, LLC

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