- The Washington Times - Monday, February 14, 2000

No wonder Emory Miller is such a romantic. He can't help himself not when there is a framed family valentine on his living room wall that will turn 150 years old today.

What a love story it has to tell.

Mr. Miller, 54, inherited the handmade valentine his great-great-grandfather Nathan Snipes presented to his sweetheart, Polly Pierce, at a Valentine's Day dance in 1850.

Like the couple's love the card has withstood the test of time. When Mr. Miller looks at the vintage valentine on the wall of his McLean, Va., home, it makes him treasure his heritage.

"My grandparents were not rich. They were farmers who survived from year to year. And their parents did the same. The valentine is priceless because it reflects the love between my relatives, not just between the two people on the valentine," Mr. Miller says.

Nathan Snipes drew Polly Pierce's name out of a hat. Mr. Miller says his great-great-grandfather was already sweet on Miss Pierce before the holiday dance.

Maybe that kind of feeling is what it takes to make a card that can last a century and a half.

To make Miss Pierce a valentine she would not soon forget, Mr. Snipes folded a single sheet of white paper a couple times and used a pen knife to shape the hearts on the inside.

His profession of love and a proposal of marriage were written neatly among the cutout hearts:

"The fourteenth day of February,

It was my lot for to be merry

When lots was cast, your name I drew,

Kind fortune says it must be you.

For sure as the grape grows on the vine,

I will be yours if you will be mine.

You are my fair and gentle friend.

Your heart is pure, I mean,

As ever was a lady's heart at Joyous Seventeen.

Your face and form is comely fair, as winter roses be.

There is no fault in you my dear that mortal's eye can see.

If all the daughters of Adam's race

Was present now before my face,

I'd part with all without a tear,

Before I would with you my dear.

The world is wide, the sea is deep,

In your loved arms I hope to sleep.

Not one night only, two nor three,

But as long as we live on Earth to be.

Seems I remember well and bear in mind,

That a faithful friend is hard to find.

My dear, if you these lines refuse,

Do burn this paper and me excuse.

But if you take it in good part,

Do send me an answer from your heart.

Round is the ring, it has no end,

So is my love for you my friend.

Nothing more at present but to remain,

Your dearest lover until death.

1850.

Mr. Nathan Snipes to Miss Polly Pierce. An answer in haste if you do please."

Nathan Snipes and Polly Pierce were married a year later, Mr. Miller says. But not all love stories have happy endings. In 1852, Mr. Snipes' young bride died shortly after giving birth to their son, John William.

"It's unfortunate the person the valentine was given to didn't live long. She had it for two years. That's the tragedy of the story that she died. But, it's interesting that family members preserved the valentine. They recognized its meaning," Mr. Miller says. "The boy, John William, was raised by aunts and uncles and he was pampered by everyone," he adds.

Mr. Miller has fond memories of visiting his grandparents, Jesse and Aggie Snipes at the "old home place" in Princeton, N.C. It was a farm with lots of crops and cackling chickens. The handmade valentine occupied a special place in the foyer of his grandparents' home.

"When my sister Sondra Fearnsides and I would visit, there was always this valentine on the wall. We were told about it as children. My grandfather, Jesse, felt it was valuable so he framed it," Mr. Miller says.

The North Carolina Museum of Art voiced an interest at one time in obtaining the valentine. Museum curators felt it reflected the traditions of the times such as drawing names to send valentines. But Mr. Miller's grandfather, Jesse, declined the request because he thought it was more meaningful for the valentine to stay in the family.

In 1969 when Mr. Miller inherited the valentine, he decided to share the sentimental verses with the entire family. He sent sepia-toned reproductions of the card so that everyone could enjoy this bit of family history.

"The valentine was written to one person, but actually a whole family received it because it was so meaningful," Mr. Miller says.

"There are a number of relatives around the country who are the offspring of these people. I'm just fortunate to have the original. The very reason I copied the valentine is we all want to share in the significance of this family heirloom," he says.

Mr. Miller's first cousin, Connie Pittman, is glad he did.

Mrs. Pittman lives at the family's farm in Princeton, N.C. She, too, remembers the valentine vividly in its special place inside the turn-of-the-century farmhouse with tin ceilings and fireplaces.

"My grandfather [William Jesse] was the oldest of the Snipes brothers. He was very proud of the valentine. He had memorized it and could recite it verse by verse," Mrs. Pittman says.

"I think the valentine in our family is rare today. The meaning behind the [contemporary] valentine is still as deep, but we rarely take the time to express our thoughts the way my great-great-grandfather did," Mr. Miller says.

For Mr. Miller and Mrs. Pittman, their family valentine has spread love down through the generations.

"I think we have a romantic gene in our family," Mrs. Pittman says with a smile.

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