Shirley Spaeth speaks about her work for the last 50 years with the Betsy Dowdy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Brett A. Clark/The Daily Advance

Shirley Spaeth speaks about her work for the last 50 years with the Betsy Dowdy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Wednesday, Sept. 15.

Spaeth is a grand dame of colonial history

By Reggie Ponder

Staff Writer

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It’s not at all surprising to learn that Shirley Spaeth shares a birthday with America.

For much of her 90 years — she was born July 4, 1920 — she has been dedicated to promoting patriotism, good citizenship and knowledge of American origins and history through organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Colonial Dames of the 17th Century.

But Spaeth, whose late husband, Dr. Walter Spaeth, practiced internal medicine in Elizabeth City from 1949 — 1983, quickly turns the attention away from herself when talking about the accomplishments of Elizabeth City’s Betsy Dowdy Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

“It has been the chapter,” Spaeth said during an interview last week at her home in Elizabeth City. “It has not been just one person that has done this.”

Spaeth has worked continuously with DAR for 50 years. She notes four other women also have had 50 years of service with the Bestsy Dowdy Chapter: Mary Gilbert, Ann Dowdy, Trudie White and Jean Milbrath.

She celebrates the chapter as a whole for its work with Constitution Week. The commemorative week began Friday and runs through Thursday. A Constitution Week observance is being held today at 3 p.m. at Museum of the Albemarle.

Most years, the chapter has sponsored a commemorative horseback ride in honor of the chapter’s namesake, with a local teenager portraying the 17-year-old Currituck resident credited with a midnight ride from Corolla to Perquimans County to inform military leaders there of a British assault on Hampton Roads during the American Revolution.

This year the ride is not taking place because of work being done to replace the Charles Creek Bridge.

Spaeth said the city police and recreation departments have been very supportive of chapter activities over the years, as has the Museum of the Albemarle.

Constitution Week remains a favorite project for Spaeth, who lamented “so many people don’t know what Constitution Week is.”

In addition to working with DAR, which sponsors Constitution Week activities, Spaeth also is a member of Colonial Dames and is a past president-general — the national head — of Colonial Dames of the 17th Century. Her work as president-general carried her to every American state except Alaska.

She has been regent of the Betsy Dowdy Chapter of DAR four times. Also, she has been a district director and state librarian for DAR.

As for the questions surrounding the historicity of the Betsy Dowdy story itself, Spaeth acknowledged no written evidence of Dowdy’s birth has ever been found. But she noted the young woman’s father is documented in Currituck County records, and she’s confident that documentation of Betsy Dowdy will eventually be located.

“Everybody is still looking and one day we’re going to find her,” she said.

Spaeth recalled that Lena Meekins, who was the wife of Judge Isaac Meekins, founded the Betsy Dowdy Chapter in 1937 with 12 charter members. She remembered Meekins as a musician and artist who was dedicated to DAR.”

Honoring Betsy Dowdy’s patriotism and courage “has been our goal all along,” she said.

Spaeth joined DAR in 1958 after Meekins’ daughter, Mary Gilbert, asked her in church one day if she was eligible to join.

She wasn’t sure at the time, so she wrote to her mother in Detroit, who sent her material tracing her lineage back to Richard Warren of the Mayflower. The information had to be verified through the national registrar.

Since learning about her own roots, she has come to value genealogy.

“These are the people that came before us,” she said.

One of the Betsy Dowdy chapter’s first official acts was hosting President Franklin D. Roosevelt on his visit to the Outer Banks for the opening of the “Lost Colony” outdoor drama.

One of the things that fascinates Spaeth about Constitution Week is that it was started by a North Carolina resident. Gertrude Carraway of New Bern was serving as president-general of DAR when she concluded there needed to be something done to increase public knowledge about the Constitution.

Constitution Week Started in 1955.

In 2004, a bill sponsored by Sen. Harry Byrd of West Virginia required that all schools receiving federal funds teach about the Constitution during Constitution Week.

The DAR also sponsors an essay contest. Locally, there has been a national essay contest winner, Melissa Morrisette, and two state winners, Jimmy Westbrook and Robert Harris, according to Spaeth.

She said during a recent meeting of the Pasquotank County Board of Commissioners, during which she accepted the Constitution Week proclamation, that she thought it was time for some of the younger members of DAR to attend some of the city and county meetings and do things she has handled in the past.

But she said she has truly enjoyed attending the meetings and accepting proclamations.

“I do love history,” Spaeth said. “I always have.”

Contact Reggie Ponder at