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Copy of “Old George” Joins Museum of the Shenandoah Valley Exhibit

A copy of “Old George,” the 1842 folk sculpture of George Washington that has topped the cupola of Washington and Lee University’s main building since 1844, traveled to Winchester recently for display in a 10-month exhibition at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley.

W&L has loaned the fiberglass copy of the wooden original by Lexington cabinetmaker Matthew Kahle for showing in “Safes of the Valley,” a collection of pie safes, or food safes, opening May 10. Kahle is noted for making distinctive, flat-walled food safes embellished with political themes and images of his time, including that of the first president of the United States.

The original 700-pound work, carved from a poplar log that Kahle is said to have found floating in the Maury River, has been called the best-known example of folk carving in the Valley and is displayed in Leyburn Library on campus. Requested by the museum, it was found too delicate to travel. W&L offered the fiberglass copy in its stead. A bronze copy replaced the original atop Washington Hall in 1992.

“Old George” has been an ambassador for W&L for years, riding in parades, displayed at the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond, and traveling around the country in the society’s exhibit, “George Washington: the Man behind the Myths.” The fiberglass copy is displayed in the atrium of Elrod Commons when not on loan.

Placed on the cupola in 1844, the eight-foot-tall statue depicts Washington in a toga, holding a sword and scroll, painted white to simulate marble. It was repainted hundreds of times in a variety of colors by mischievous students, their crew clubs and even VMI cadets from next door, each time repainted white by the University. It avoided destruction during the Civil War when a professor pointed out “Old George” to the Union captain ordered to burn Washington Hall. The captain decided he could not destroy a building that supported a statue of Washington.

Sun, rain, ice and snow took their toll, and “Old George” was removed in 1936 during renovations to Washington Hall. Put back in place during the 1960s after restoration, it was again removed in 1970 to repair damage to the left shoulder caused by insects and woodpeckers. The statue was permanently removed for restoration in 1990 and replaced on the building with the bronze copy in 1992. An exhibition case near the original in the library displays 100 layers of paint and a petrified bird’s next with four eggs removed during the restoration.