But to her amazement, when she started opening up the stacked boxes and storage tubs, she found a treasure trove of local history and is still working to get the pieces sorted out and find a way to display them.
“It’s almost unreal,” Williams said.
Among her discoveries is actual hoop and bustle worn in the 1800s, dresses that are well over 100 years old with hand stitched appliqués and fancy work on them, lace cuffs and collars and lots of other things.
Williams knew that the clothing had to be handled carefully, and got on the phone to the Birmingham Museum of Art and the Alabama Department of History and Archives for advice.
Her advisors told her what kind of storage boxes to get to keep them safe as possible until a display area can be set up, and also said it was really better not to try to have them cleaned.
“It’s very expensive, they said, and actually, the aging and even the stains are usually important to people who look at them,” Williams said.
Storing the pieces in the special boxes is recommended over hanging the clothes because it could cause tears, she also found out.
The dresses are elaborate in their detailing, some appear to be from the early to late 1800s style and others from the “flapper” period of the 1920s.
They are of varied fabrics, satin and silk, along with taffeta and cotton.
Holding up what appears to be made of cotton, a brown full-length dress, Williams notes the horse hair used at the bottom of the hem and explains why it was done that way.
“These dresses would drag the ground and the horse hair would protect the fabric from fraying,” she said.
Williams wears white cotton gloves handling the pieces to ward off skin oils being passed onto the collection.
Many of the clothes came through the Hugh and Ruth McElderry family, Williams said. McElderry was Louise McElderry Jemison’s sister, and she was the individual who gave the property for the original Carnegie Library-now Heritage Hall Museum-to be built.
There are two “bonnets,” most likely from the 1800s, with labels bearing the name “Aitken & Son & Company, 18th Street and Broadway, New York.”
Both are fitted with ribbons that tie underneath the chin, one is a rich blue velvet with a matching rosette on one side, the other, black velvet with red poufs and dotted black feathers perched on top.
Among her finds, too, is a newspaper named “Alaquan” dating to 1895, and a program from the Alabama Chautauqua Assembly, a cultural society in Talladega, dated 1897.
Williams has also run across the famed physician Dr. Elisha Henry Jones’ Talladega College diploma, along with a small leather bound book of his notes and two of what seem to be his medical syringes.
Jones was the first African American doctor known of in Talladega and was a surgical specialist.
Williams’ hope for the collection is reall three-fold.
One, that the items can be further researched, and tow, that perhaps a group could be formed to help with the project to reach goal number three, getting them displayed.
“We just have to find the right space, and have enough glassed display cases to get to the point where people can see these things,” she said. “They are so interesting.”