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REUTHER: Leaders should welcome dialogue on lake's name
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REUTHER: Leaders should welcome dialogue on lake's name

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Lake Pelham

Lake Pelham was named in the 1960s for Confederate officer John Pelham (1838-1863) of Alabama, who died in the town of Culpeper during the Civil War.

Sometimes an issue comes to the attention of the Culpeper Town Council that exposes an unattractive default setting for some officials, a stonewalling that is more reminiscent of years gone by.

Local businessman Joe Daniel, who was born and raised in these parts, triggered the most recent example by questioning the naming of a reservoir created in the 1960s to ensure the town’s water supply and prevent flooding.

He researched the town’s documents on the Army Corps of Engineers’ project, which appeared to show the town had not formally named the lake. The dam created the lake, and the lake slipped into Culpeper’s records with the Pelham name.

Naming rights are usually reserved for civic benefactors or outstanding local figures.

Unfortunately, Confederate artillery officer John Pelham checks neither box. He wasn’t from Culpeper County. His family were slaveholders in Alabama. He was a West Point cadet who betrayed his oath to defend and protect the Constitution of the United States and fought for the Confederacy. He was a combat casualty in Culpeper County at the Battle of Kelly’s Ford on March 1863.

Why protect this accidental naming if Culpeper has no skin in the game?

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The Town Council has been informally discussing this issue for some time. But when Councilwoman Jamie Clancey proposed formally putting the issue on the council’s agenda, her motion went unsupported.

Prospective candidate for mayor Jon Russell, who moved here from Washington state only eight years ago, particularly objected. He dismissed Daniel’s research efforts as an example of “a handful of people looking for something to change.” This is a rather condescending view for a public servant to take toward a noted community benefactor.

But then again, during the time of the Declaration of Independence, the civil rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and other examples of appeals for redress of grievances, the status-quo powers see only agitators. Russell avoids evidence that the town did not pick the name, and that Pelham has no claim to local fame. He just doesn’t believe we should ask.

It was fitting and proper for businessman Daniel to research the origin of the name. We could use this opportunity to proclaim Culpeper’s contribution to American history. In doing so, we will have more appropriate candidates that the town could honor than someone with little connection to it.

Culpeper, like Lexington and Concord, is steeped in the events of the Revolutionary War. The town of Culpeper’s logo features two Minutemen. As the Sons of the American Revolution Charters of Freedom in Yowell Meadow Park proclaim that the Culpeper Minutemen have a rich and storied history. They fought and sacrificed to bring forth on this continent a new nation. They won their battles, and they won our freedom.

Culpeper has several heroes from the Revolutionary War who can make a better claim to our attention and respect than a Confederate officer who did not fight for our freedoms. There is Gen. Edward Stevens, who gave the land for the Masonic Cemetery and the name to Stevens Street. Also, consider Abraham Buford, who rushed his troops to Charleston to prevent its fall to the English. Unfortunately, at the end of that battle, the English refused to honor his white flag and massacred Buford’s force.

The renaming of Culpeper’s artificial lake is a matter worthy of serious contemplation. Councilman Russell’s dismissal of even raising and discussing the issue seems a little arrogant. Councilwoman Clancey’s suggestion of holding a public contest to rename the lake is inclusive and appropriate. It comes from a leader who is attuned to the community and works with Culpeper’s youth.

Maybe someone should start a petition.

David Reuther, a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, is a past chair of the Culpeper Democratic Committee. These are his personal observations.

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