Meet Jennifer England, this famous ham’s caretaker
You can find this unusual artifact at the Isle of Wight County Museum, located at the corner of Main and Church Streets in downtown Smithfield. The museum is also home to the world’s oldest peanut, and it’s the responsibility of Jennifer England, director of the museum, to care for these important – though somewhat unusual – treasures.
Edible artifacts were something new for Jennifer when she began at the museum in 2008. Before to coming to the museum she worked at more conventional historic sites for the city of Newport News such as the Virginia War Museum, Lee Hall Train Station and Endview Plantation. Prior to holding that position she wrote obituaries for the Daily Press, so she’s no stranger to unusual job responsibilities.
But while visitors may be lured to the museum to see the oldest ham and peanut, the museum offers a great deal more. This is not some dusty hole in the wall. There are colorful, dynamic and eye-catching exhibits on the Civil War, the Blackwater River, Native Americans, agriculture and more – as well as full-size reproductions of a smokehouse and a turn-of-the-century country store.
While the museum presents the history of Isle of Wight County from prehistoric times through the Cold War, don’t think this museum is stuck in the past. Museum staff are very active on social media (Facebook and Twitter), offer a live video feed from the world’s oldest hams (HamCam!) and host a twice weekly podcast on Tuesdays and Thursdays called Ham Cam Live at 12:05. (tune in at www.hamcamva.com). Under Jennifer’s enthusiastic leadership for the past eight years, the museum has grown to be a must-see attraction, hosting visitors of all ages, from the Coastal Virginia area, all 50 states and beyond.
Jennifer loves hearing the visitor’s stories: “A few weeks ago, two sisters from northern Virginia played hooky from work to visit the world’s oldest ham. They were overjoyed – texting their co-workers, waving at the Ham Cam, calling their friends – to make the trip to see this roadside attraction.”
When Jennifer arrived in 2008, the museum had been closed due to a flood in 2006. She supervised the daunting task of cleaning, repairing and storing the damaged artifacts, and managed to reopen the museum in six short months. This is not someone afraid to pull out a broom, dust mop, hammer, paintbrush – whatever is needed! This year, the IOWC Museum is celebrating its 40th anniversary, and Jennifer and her staff are busy preparing a special exhibit, publishing a catalog and hosting a reception in November.
What lured this Youngstown, Ohio, native to take on this tough job? As Jennifer describes her days, you can see she loves the challenge, “Every day at the museum is different. Some days, I’m immersed in Civil War history or colonial history. Some days I’m lugging artifacts around. Some days I’m editing pieces for publication or feeling inspired about future projects. Some days I’m helping a visitor learn something new. Some days I’m removing deceased rodents from traps. You never know what the day will bring.”
Of course, Jennifer is quick to point out that she is part of an impressive team. “The museum has an amazing staff. We’re a great team committed to history, preservation, customer service and visitors having a positive experience at our establishment. A recent review on TripAdvisor said that the museum is ‘not your grandmother’s county museum’ and that the staff has ‘a sense of humor.’ This is precisely what we are trying to do.”
Jennifer lives in Western Branch with husband, Brett and three feisty felines, Max (who has his own Facebook page), Cheddar and Montag. She’s also a certified personal trainer and teaches yoga, Pilates, TRX and cycling at several area YMCAs. Jennifer is very involved in the community serving as an election official and precinct chief for the city of Newport News and as an active a member of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Great Bridge Chapter.
As busy as her life sounds, she and Brett always find time for their passion – traveling to offbeat, somewhat unusual destinations. Here’s their bucket list of ‘must-see’s: “The Greenbrier Bunker in West Virginia, the Getty in San Diego, Cite du Vin in Bordeaux, the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, the Herring Era Museum in Iceland, a visit to Isle of Wight, England, to meet a pen-pal I’ve not met in person yet – plus a Doctor Who exhibit in Wales that Brett is determined to see.”
Getting her hands dirty, envisioning and creating exhibits, running successful programs and events, managing the museum’s social media and staying involved in her community, Jennifer is a dynamo who has transformed a once boarded-up museum into one of the region’s most popular museum attractions – all the while keeping her sense of humor.
As she describes it:“Ham is everywhere in my life, it seems. By day, I’m in charge of the world’s oldest HAM. In the evenings, making sure that my group exercise participants stretch their HAMstrings is a large component of class. And on weekends, relaxing and reading in my HAMmock is one of my favorite things to do. “
Isle of Wight County Museum
103 Main Street, Smithfield
Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday – Saturday and noon-4 p.m. Sunday
$2 admission for adults
Group tours and programming available. 757.357.0115