Cornelia Pohlhill Miller was just 14 when she carefully stored away a lengthy, philosophical letter from her brother, dated Sept. 4, 1848.
The older sibling, John Pohlhill, encouraged her to study and remain active in her church.
“Remember your future position in society depends upon the manner in which you improve your present opportunities,” he wrote.
The young Hephzibah woman, whose lifelong collection of letters and papers was recently donated to the Augusta-Richmond County Library, likely followed her brother’s advice.
She soon married Baldwin B. Miller, a prominent Hephzibah businessman who became one of the largest landowners in Georgia.
“By a close attention to business and the exercise of fine judgment, he amassed a fortune,” his obituary says.
The collection of memorabilia covers much of Cornelia Miller’s life, from the 1848 letter to 1909, when she received cards and notes honoring her 75th birthday.
The material includes early Christmas cards, receipts from Augusta businesses and other documents that help portray and preserve the past in an unconventional way.
“It turns history into something that’s very personal,” said Dottie Demarest, the library’s genealogy and local history librarian. “It shows firsthand how everyday people lived. They wrote about their family, their friends – even their travels.”
Many of Miller’s papers were letters she received from friends and family, including a note from her mother, dated May 10, 1857, after her parents completed a trip to Hawkinsville, Ga.
“We crossed the Oconee on a flat,” Julia Pohlhill wrote. “There had been a great freshet lately – based on the trees, the water had been 30 or 40 feet higher.”
The documents are now part of the collection housed in the library’s Georgia Heritage Room, headquartered on the building’s third floor.
“We are, basically, a repository for the community,” Demarest said. “We also try to make all these things accessible to the community.”
The Miller collection, donated by John and Linda Beck of Hephzibah, is now stored with other treasures from Augusta’s past that include newspapers, family Bibles, phone books, city directories and photographs dating to the 1800s.
“We also have a large collection of yearbooks, from all the colleges and schools,” Demarest said. “People use them for reference.”
The Heritage Room also houses one of the largest collections of Augusta-themed postcards, with more than 400 views of life in the Garden City; and it has a very unusual collection of almost 3,000 printed programs from funerals.
The documents are particularly valuable for genealogical research and for studies of Augusta’s black population during a period when many families did not document and store information about families and descendants, she said.
Other items preserved for the future include records from the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen & Abandoned Lands, a federal agency formed after the Civil War to track the disposition of former slaves and their often separated families.