Listen Here: Appalachian History Weekly podcast posts today

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 31, 2014

We usually post a new episode of Appalachian History weekly podcast every Sunday. But today’s Halloween, and we’ve got some stories that’ll have you checking under the bed and in the closet before your day is over! We’re on the Stitcher network, available on mobile phones, in-car dashboards and tablets worldwide. Just click below to start listening:

Today’s show will consist entirely of spooky tales from the collection of the Frank & Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center in Fairmont, WV.

Between the 1950s to the early 1970s, WV folklorist Ruth Ann Musick collected folktales at church socials, fairs, festivals, and other community functions.

Most of the tales collected were labeled as legends, for they contained extraordinary, remarkable, even bizarre supernatural and preternatural events and encounters that had happened to ordinary people. Historically, isolated hills and little-traveled roads were scenes of potential violence. Later, the Industrial Revolution claimed lives in railroad, bridge, and tunnel accidents. Coal mining accidents in particular have produced numerous tales of ghostly and ghastly encounters.

In addition to its abundance of tragic circumstances, Appalachia’s climate and topography offer ideal settings for strange happenings. Its rolling hills cast long shadows into deep hollows while patchy valley fog oozes up from cooling waters to hang from green ridges. Suddenly, a breath of wind cuts the fog into will-o’-the-wisps that spin off into the pale moonlight and float over a lonely road – or in the deepest tunnel of a coal mine – or beside an empty railroad track – waiting – waiting – for someone. Lifted beyond or below the natural, the ghostly and ghastly tales are born.

halloween listenersIn storytelling, three major ghosts abound. The first is the helpful spirit. Miracles and tales of help from fairies and other wee folk have been traditionally told in the hills. The most prevalent helper, however, is the benevolent ghost that returns to save a loved one in distress, such as a sick mother or trapped miner.

The second most recorded ghost is the “unrested” spirit or poltergeist, usually the spirit of a person who has died suddenly or tragically. The poltergeist drifts upon the earth, attaching itself to a familiar person or place. Thus, the haunted house or haunted person story is created. The third type of supernatural encounter, the revengeful ghost, is the least common tale to be found in the hills. Sometimes a ghost returns to see that justice is done or that the truth be known. In contrast, the preternatural tales go below the natural to present ghastly encounters of evil doings, such as vampires, werewolves, trolls, giants, dragons, devils, and especially witches.

The 6 folktales presented here were collected through the field study component of Fairmont State University’s Folk Literature classes and housed in the un-published folklore estate of Ruth Ann Musick. The first 5 tales were gathered by Dr. Musick with her students between the 1950s and early 1970s. The final tale was collected by Judy Byers and her students during 2010 Spring Semester, following in the same tradition.

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Clad in brilliant white raiment, they appeared to rise off the mountain south of Chimney Rock

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 30, 2014

Raleigh Register and State Gazette

September 23, 1806

The following account of an extraordinary phenomenon that appeared to a number of people in the county of Rutherford, state of North Carolina, was made the 7th of August, 1806, in presence of D. Dickie, Esq. of the county and state aforesaid, Jesse Anderson and the Rev. George Newton of the county of Buncombe and Miss Betsey Newton of the state of Georgia, who unanimously agreed, with the consent of the relators, that Mr. Newton should communicate it to Mr. Gales, Editor of the Raleigh Register and State Gazette.

Patsy Reaves, a widow woman, who lives near the Apalachian Mountain, declared, that on the 31st day of July last, about 6 o’clock P.M. her daughter Elizabeth, about 8 years old, was in the cotton field, about 10 poles from the dwelling house, which stands by computation, six furlongs from the Chimney Mountain, and that Elizabeth told her brother Morgan, aged 11 years, that there was a man on the mountain.

Early 20th century penny postcard of Chimney Rock, NC.

Morgan was incredulous at first, but the little girl affirmed it, and said she saw him, rolling rocks or picking up sticks, adding that she saw ‘a heap of people.’ Morgan then went to the place where she was, and called out, said that he saw a thousand or ten thousand things flying in the air.

On which Polly, daughter of Mrs. Reaves, a good four years, and a negro woman, ran to the children and called Mrs. Reaves to see what a sight yonder was. Mrs. Reaves says she went about 8 poles towards them, and, without any sensible alarm or fright, she turned towards the Chimney Mountain, and discovered a very numerous crowd of beings resembling the human species, but could not discern any particular members of the human body, nor distinction of sexes; that they were of every size, from the tallest men down to the least infants; that there were more of the small than of the full grown, that they were all clad with brilliant white raiment; but could not describe any form of their garment; that they appeared to rise off the mountain south of said rock, and about as high; that a considerable part of the mountain’s top was visible about this shining host, that they moved in a northern direction, and collected about the top of Chimney Rock.

When all but a few had reached said rock, two seemed to rise together and behind them about two feet, a third rose. These three moved with great agility towards the crowd, and had the nearest resemblance of two men, of any before seen. While beholding those three her eyes were attracted by three more rising nearly from the same place, and moving swiftly in the same order and direction. After these, several others rose and went toward the rock.

During this view, which all the spectators thought lasted upwards of an hour, she sent for Mr. Robert Siercy, who did not come at first; on a second message sent about fifteen minutes after the first, Mr. Siercy came, and being now before us, he gives the following relation, to the substance of which Mrs. Reaves agrees.

Mr. Siercy said, when he was coming, he expected to see nothing extraordinary, and when come, being asked if he saw those people on the mountain, he answered no; but on looking the second time, he said he saw more glittering white appearances of human kind than ever he had seen of men at any general review; that they were of all sizes from that of men to infants; that they moved in throngs round a large rock, not far from the Chimney Rock; that they were about the height of the Chimney Rock, and moved in a semicircular course between him and the rock, and so passed along in a southern route between him and the mountains, to the place where Mrs. Reaves said they rose; and that two of a full size went before the general crowd about the space of 20 yards, and as they respectively came to this place, they vanished out of sight, leaving a solemn and pleasing impression on the mind, accompanied with a diminution of bodily strength.

Whether the above be accountable on philosophical principles, or whether it be a prelude to the descent of the holy city, I leave to the impartially curious to judge.

George Newton

P.S. The above subscriber has been informed, that on the same evening, at about the same time in which the above phenomenon appeared, there was seen by a gentleman of character, who was several miles distant from the place, a bright rainbow, apparently near the sun, then in the west, where there was no appearance of either clouds or rain; but a haze in the atmosphere. The public are therefore at liberty to judge, whether the phenomenon had any thing supernatural in it, or whether it was some unusual exhalation or moist vapor from the side of the mountain, which exhibited such an unusual rainbow.

Source: article first cited in Travels Through the Northern Parts of the United States in the Years 1807 and 1808, by Edward Augustus Kendall, Esq., publ. I. Riley, New York, 1809

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‘I Remember’ at Gadsden Museum of Art

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 29, 2014

A Tribute to Etowah County, AL Veterans and their Families

rebecca dukePlease welcome guest author Rebecca Duke. Duke is the curator at the Gadsden Museum of Art, where she manages the museum and coordinates the art program for the City of Gadsden, AL. Additionally, Mrs. Duke is a PhD candidate in Public History at Middle Tennessee State University, where she is completing her dissertation on a New Deal resettlement community in Jackson County, AL. She has previously served as the Curator of Education and Collections at the Sam Davis Home historic site in Smyrna, TN.

 

The Gadsden Museum of Art is pleased to announce the opening of the temporary exhibition, I Remember. This is the third year that the museum will host the exhibit, which runs in correlation with Veteran’s Day. The intent at its inception was to honor and highlight the contributions and efforts of the men and women of Etowah County who have served in combat. This year, the theme focuses on the home front and the effects of the war on the families that were left behind when a loved one went to serve their country overseas.

After a public call for memorabilia, the museum received many items, particularly from families of the World War II era. Many of the items on display are from this time period, including sweetheart pins and jewelry, original framed posters and newspapers, and everyday ephemera that feature military or wartime propaganda. Pro-American and military imagery were commonplace on the home front during this time, and the exhibit highlights some of these items.

Etowah County played a key role in the war effort during World War II. Residents not only participated in food rationing, planted victory gardens, and organized supply drives, the landscape itself changed to accommodate war-related industry. The Gadsden Ordnance Plant was constructed to manufacture shells for cannons, producing more than 16 million shells over the course of the war. The “shell plant”, as it was called many locals, was located in East Gadsden and covered 330 acres. The site consisted of twenty-three buildings and the perimeter was protected by a high fence. At the time of construction, the plant was the largest government-owned facility in the nation that was solely used to forge and make shells.

The British War Relief Society was a US-based humanitarian organization that supplied non-military aid such as food, clothing, and medical supplies to the U.S. servicemen and the people of Great Britain during World War II.  This photo shows the local Bundles for Britain group putting together an aid package to go overseas. Courtesy of the Gadsden Public Library, Scarborough Collection, 1941.

The British War Relief Society was a US-based humanitarian organization that supplied non-military aid such as food, clothing, and medical supplies to the U.S. servicemen and the people of Great Britain during World War II. This photo shows the local Bundles for Britain group putting together an aid package to go overseas. Courtesy of the Gadsden Public Library, Scarborough Collection, 1941.

Another major development in the Gadsden area during the Second World War was the establishment of Camp Sibert. In June 1942, United States government used 37,035 acres in Etowah and neighboring St. Clair County to establish the first chemical warfare center in the state of Alabama. Three-hundred-thirty-nine families lived within the proposed boundaries of the camp. The Farm Security Administration assisted with their relocation. Named after William Luther Sibert, the first chief of chemical warfare service and Etowah County native, Camp Sibert served as a training center for chemical warfare.

The camp housed anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 troops at a time. The facility was extensive and featured forty-one miles of roads and 1,500 buildings including a hospital, theatre, and a prison stockade. Various maneuvers took place at the training facility such as smoke-screen defense, chemical decontamination and chemical depot maintenance. During certain exercises, fuming sulfuric acid was dropped on troops from airplanes to simulate aerial mustard attacks. Camp Sibert altered the landscape and stimulated the economy in Etowah County. Several hundred civilian jobs were created and the men stationed at Camp Sibert spent lots of money in Gadsden. After the camp closed in December 1942, numerous men stationed at the camp remained in the area.

Many World War II items on display were loaned to the museum from former state Representative Jack Page. Page, who majored in history and is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, collects historical wartime memorabilia and allowed the museum to peruse his private collection for items for the exhibit.

Losing your spouse, son, or daughter during war time is a very real possibility for families whose loved ones serve overseas. Families dreaded receiving telegrams for fear of getting the heartbreaking news that someone had died in combat. Jane Martin, a local business owner in Gadsden, shared letters, photographs, and documents relating to the death of her father in World War II. Frank Marion Young died while serving in Germany and was buried in a U.S. cemetery in Holland before his body was reinterred to Forrest Cemetery in Gadsden. Young’s display shows the dark side of the war for families.

Hanging memoriam of dog tags, seen at the top of this photo, in honor of those from Etowah County who were killed in action.

Hanging memoriam of dog tags, seen at the top of this photo, in honor of those from Etowah County who were killed in action.

Staying in touch with the men and women overseas was very important for families back home, and at times was very difficult, if not impossible. A large portion of the I Remember exhibit deals with communicating during war time and shows the evolution of communication methods over the past seventy years. Letters were the primary method of communication during World War II and the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, soldiers could use M.A.R.S., or the Military Auxiliary Radio System. M.A.R.S. was a Department of Defense sponsored program that consisted of civilian licensed amateur radio operators who were interested in military communication.

Enlisted men would sign up for an appointment at the M.A.R.S. station at their camp. M.A.R.S. calls often had spotty reception and only lasted three minutes. However, even hearing the voice of someone back home could raise the spirits of a soldier who was thousands of miles away from his family. In today’s military engagements, technology allows for the use of the internet to provide communication in real time through email, instant messages, and video chatting.

Perhaps the most poignant facet of the exhibit is the hanging memoriam in honor of those from Etowah County who were killed in action. The main gallery corridor features timelines for each war from World War II to present day. Above each timeline panel is a hanging display of dog tags from the ceiling. Each tag features the name of an individual who died in combat. A printed list of names is shown next to each timeline as well. Tableaus reflecting uniforms from different eras, efforts of the American Red Cross, and a memorial to Colonel Ola Lee Mize, a Medal of Honor recipient who died earlier this year, are located throughout the gallery.

A large map display poses the question “Where in the World Were You?” and invites veterans to pinpoint where they were deployed on the world map and where their families lived in the United States during their deployment. This portion of the exhibition often serves as a place for discussion amongst museum patrons who delight in comparing stories of where they have lived during service.

Mail Call: Letters were the primary method of communication during World War II and the Korean War.

Mail Call: Letters were the primary method of communication during World War II and the Korean War.

Since this is the third year of hosting the I Remember exhibit, it was important that the museum not duplicate themes or displays from previous years. An exhibition advisory committee was established in May of 2014 that met weekly to discuss potential themes and narrative points. John Graham, a Vietnam War and twenty-plus year military career veteran, who also serves as a museum volunteer, proposed the concept of focusing on the spouses and children who served alongside their enlisted service member.

“People often thank those who are enlisted, but forget about the families that give up so much so their loved one can serve the country that they love,” says Graham. In addition to two museum staff members, the exhibition advisory committee consisted of various members of the community including a former reference librarian, two veterans from Etowah County and members of the local Patriot Association, and a spouse of a veteran.

It was important to the committee for the exhibit to feature an interactive element. It was clear to the museum staff that one of the most moving aspects of developing the exhibit was interviewing the veterans when they brought in memorabilia to display. However, the museum visitors did not get to experience this. The museum partnered with Craig Scott at the Gadsden Public Library to record interviews of area veterans and their family members for this year’s exhibit. Quick Response, or QR, codes, are located throughout the exhibit that play excerpts from these interviews.

The Gadsden Museum of Art would like to invite you to the reception of the third annual I Remember exhibit on Friday, November 7, 2014 from 6:00 – 8:00 p.m. The display will remain on exhibit until November 22nd. The GMA is open Tuesday – Saturday 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and open 10:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. on Thursdays. For more information please call 256-546-7365 or visit our website at www.gadsdenmuseum.com.

The case displays war bond advertisements, ration books, and a "knit for defense" pattern book - all items display ways civilians could help with the war effort during WWII.

This case displays war bond advertisements, ration books, and a “knit for defense” pattern book – all items display ways civilians could help with the war effort during WWII.

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Ghostlore – collected by Ruth Ann Musick

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 28, 2014

The following article is excerpted from ‘Traditions’ magazine, Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, Fairmont, WV. It is reposted here with permission.

The image of a group of friends swapping ghost stories around a campfire late at night is one that is very familiar to Appalachia and an integral part of Appalachian folklore and literary history. Nearly everyone has had his or her experience of ghost stories filled with spooky sounds, horrid murders, and ventures into the unknown, and to celebrate this magical facet of folk literature, we at the Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center have chosen a selection of Appalachian ghost stories that Dr. Ruth Ann Musick collected during her years teaching.

In these stories, ghosts fill and color the folk landscape of Appalachia, making trouble and causing disturbances for people from all walks of life. In “The Family That Disappeared,” a ghostly mist haunts a family, while a group of lumberjacks experience the fright of their lives in “Ike the Lumberjack.” A young couple find themselves living in a haunted house in “A Night of Horror,” and in “The Ghost of the Golden Cup,” an antique dealer finds that he has gotten himself into more than he had bargained for. The uncanny and the macabre fill these authentic Appalachian ghost tales, breathing life into the stories of the undead.

Throughout all of these stories, our Appalachian heritage shows through, reminding us of the stories that have been passed down through our families for years. These tales hearken back to our childhoods when we listened to the ghostly stories of times gone by. While they are chilling and sometimes disturbing, they are also nostalgic, instilling within us not only a sense of history and heritage, but also one of the magical whim and mystery of childhood.

Without a doubt, the stories that we have chosen are rife with mysterious events and spooky encounters with the beyond. They really do leave one questioning, “Could this have really happened?” Whether you are an avid ghostlore enthusiast or are a skeptic, I dearly hope that the following stories transport you, carrying you away to worlds of pure imagination and the wonder of childhood. —Ian Williams

The cover design of Traditions magazine Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, from which this article is reprinted. It features pen and ink with mixed watercolor images created by Noel W. Tenney. Various illustrations were inspired by the chosen haunting stories contained in this excerpt. Tombstone carvers, flying cats and kits, a hitchhiking lady in red, and a golden cup are the main motifs used on the cover.

The cover design of ‘Traditions’ magazine Volume 13, published by Fairmont University, from which this article is reprinted. It features pen and ink with mixed watercolor images created by Noel W. Tenney. Various illustrations were inspired by the chosen haunting stories contained in this excerpt. Tombstone carvers, flying cats and kits, a hitchhiking lady in red, and a golden cup are the main motifs used on the cover.

 

The Family that Disappeared

On the border between West Virginia and Virginia, a very unexpected thing occurred some years ago. A family was driving to visit some neighbors. A weird sound caused the driver to stop and investigate. As he stepped from the car, he noticed a thick fog very low to the ground. He thought nothing of this but, as he looked around, he noticed it was heading for him. He walked away from the car and left his family there just for a moment.

When he returned, the car was empty and there was no sign of footprints or of the strange fog. His family had disappeared into thin air. He got frantic and raced for his neighbor’s house. He told his story and a small group returned to the scene. Nobody was in the car as the man had said and no tracks of any kind could be found. He returned to the neighbor’s house and called the police to investigate. The policeman told this man that a similar occurrence had happened only a month or so before and still nothing had been found of the others.

This threw the man into a panic and he ran back to his car. He searched and searched but only to find nothing. Then, he heard the weird sound. When he turned, he saw the strange fog rolling toward him. This time he stood where he was and apparently the fog enveloped him. When it rolled away, he was gone and was never heard from again. The police again were called to investigate, but nothing substantial was ever found of either of these two families.

[Note: Corrections suggested by Dr. Musick.]
Collector: Rick Price
Informant: Mother
Location: Border of VA and WV
Date: January 15, 1969
Type: Supernatural, Ghostlore

 

The Ghost of the Golden Cup

There once was an antique dealer who bought a tarnished golden cup. He acquired this cup at an auction miles away from his home town and his shop. The cup, as it seemed to him, would bring a very good price, so he took it to his shop and polished it until it shined with great splendor. Almost everything this man had bought or sold had a slight flaw in it, but this cup had none. The perfection of this cup pushed it for a fast and high sale price. Still, the dealer couldn’t help worrying about the perfection of this cup. The cup was sold to an elderly lady who loved its simplicity and adored its beauty. This lady took the cup home and drank from it, which was a terrible mistake because the next morning, she was dead. This fact made the antique dealer really worry, so he went to the lady’s son and bought the cup again.

Illustration by Noel W. Tenney

Illustration by Noel W. Tenney

The dealer figured this would be a good way to make some money, so every once in a while he would rent this cup to people who had enemies they couldn’t stand. All of the people who drank from this cup died the next day.

The dealer figured that since the cup had served its purpose in making him rich, he would destroy it to forget its bad memories. One day, he
melted this cup and formed it into a statue of a man. Not long afterward, the statue was sold to an antique hobbyist who collected antique miniature statues. That night, after it was sold, a ghost appeared and told this dealer he would die the next day because of his improper use of this odd golden cup. The dealer didn’t believe this ghost, but in spite of his doubt, he died the next day.

[Note: Corrections suggested by Dr. Musick.]
Collector: Leonard Romino
Date: November 22, 1968
Type: Ghostlore

 

A Night of Horror

A young married couple had just moved into their new home. It was in a sparsely settled community and their nearest neighbor was a half mile away. The newlyweds had enough of the pioneer spirit that they did not mind the isolation. They felt they had been fortunate to find such a location, for the land was new and rich and soon they hoped to be living comfortably and secure from want. The house consisted of four rooms with a large attic which could be used for an extra room in case they had company.

Four large pines almost hid the house from view and through their branches the breezes stole, making sweet, sad music. The meager furniture left the rooms looking almost bare, but John could make a piece occasionally and Mary was already planning the weaving of a rug for the living room. And, by saving money from the sale of the crops, she hoped to have drapes for her windows. They had worked hard all afternoon and after a nourishing supper, they retired for their first night in their new home. After a time, they fell asleep.

Near midnight, they were awakened by a rending crash in the kitchen. “John, what was that?” screamed Mary, grabbing her husband in horror. “I don’t know,” whispered John, “but it sounded like falling dishes.” He was out of bed now, grasping for the lamp and matches beside the bed. Lamp in hand, he walked cautiously to the kitchen. “Nothing amiss here,” he called back to Mary who still lay in bed, frantically clutching the covers about her.

“We must just have been dreaming,” said her husband as he came back into the room. No dishes were broken and the cupboard was in its rightful place in the corner. “Strange that we should both have had the same dream,” Mary whispered, trembling. John set the lamp on the stand and turned down the wick, leaving a very small flame which cast pale ghostly shadows across the floor. He had just settled comfortably in bed when there came a sound as of water dripping—just a subdued pat-pat-pat, about a second between each drop. Neither spoke for a time—the water pail must be leaking, though it hadn’t before. “John, will you please see what it is?” asked Mary.

“I just can’t possibly sleep until I know. I seem to be a bundle of nerves since that crash.” John turned up the light and started for the kitchen. “Wait for me,” panted Mary. “I don’t want to be left alone.” The noise ceased as they stepped into the kitchen. The water pail was not leaking and there was no sign of water on the floor, but there was something which neither had noticed before—a large reddish-brown splotch on the floor near the table. It looked like paint, but both wondered why Mary hadn’t noticed it when she scrubbed the floor that day.

Glancing up at the ceiling they saw a similar stain, as if something had run through from the attic. John started up the steps and Mary followed him fearfully. They searched carefully and the light at last fell upon a dark red stain and a large smear which looked like dried blood. They discovered a path of blood leading toward the stairs. Their fear was beginning to leave them now and there remained only the desire to trace down this mysterious phenomenon. Down the stairs and into the kitchen it led them. Now, John noticed something he had not observed before.

A section of flooring had been cut out and then nailed back into place. With the aid of a mattock, he loosened the boards and underneath, in a shallow grave, he found all that remained of a human being—a well preserved skeleton. They were horrified but their fear soon left them. They went back to bed and to sleep. Early next morning, John and Mary walked to town about four miles away and reported their discovery to the constable. An investigation soon led to the discovery of the murderer and he was given a long prison term. Never afterward were the young couple disturbed by weird noises and they lived happily for many years in what had been a haunted house.

Informant: J.R. Kimble
Location: Wetzel County, WV
Type: Ghostlore


Ike the Lumberjack

This story was told to me by my grandfather who is still living in Shinnston today. The time was in the middle of March in 1922. The place was a small village called Everette. The lumberjacking crew had just arrived from another job and were “doing the town” before their next job. Their job was to clear the Everette forest. My grandfather was a member of that crew. The Everette forest was practically untouched because of the legend of “Ike.”

Ike was supposedly the ghost of an enormous lumberjack who was killed by a giant redwood tree in the Everette forest. The legend said he would come out once a month and chop down a tree in the middle of the night. Many people of the village had heard chopping in the night and the next day they had always found a giant redwood tree on the ground. Many crews had tried working the Everette forest but they were all scared off.

The next day, the crew started to work and everything went smoothly for about two weeks. One rainy night, the crew was awakened by a loud chopping and groaning noise in the forest. The men got up and ran toward the chopping sound. When they were almost there, a giant redwood fell and killed two men. The rest of the men ran back to the camp and left that night. Some said they had heard footsteps crunching away from the fallen redwood. The Everette forest remained uncut.

Collector: Robert Patterson
Informant: Grandfather
Location: Everette, WV
Date: December 5, 1966
Type: Ghostlore

 

Dear reader, there are many more stories beyond this excerpt to be found in the original ‘Traditions’ article! See below the photo to order a complete copy.

 

The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV.

The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV.

 

Traditions, which is the official journal of West Virginia folklore/folklife studies, was originally started in 1950 as West Virginia Folklore with Dr. Ruth Ann Musick as its longtime editor. It was a quarterly journal and linked to the West Virginia Folklore Society, the fourth such society in America to showcase regional follkore. The name was changed in 1993 to incorporate more content related to the study of folklore, such as its scholarship, research, and educational application, along with the actual lore. Dr. Judy P. Byers and Noel W. Tenney have served as co-editors since 1993, and it is published annually. The Society with its archives and membership evolved into The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, also, in 1993.

The complete version of this article can be found in Traditions, Vol. 13, which you can order from The Frank and Jane Gabor West Virginia Folklife Center, Fairmont, WV. The price for an issue of the journal is $10.00 which includes shipping plus information about becoming a Friend of the Folklife Center and its various activities.You can also contact the Center via Facebook. Special thanks go out to Dr. Judy P. Byers, Director of the Center, for her help preparing this article.

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Today in the Houston County Archives

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 27, 2014

Melissa Barker, Houston County Archivist and Records ManagerPlease welcome guest author Melissa Barker. Barker is the Houston County, Tennessee Archivist and Records Manager and a Professional Genealogist. She was instrumental in establishing the first ever archive in Houston County in 2010. She is a graduate of the TSLA Archives Institute. In addition to her duties as archivist and records manager, she also speaks at local group meetings to advocate for the local archive and the preservation of historic records. She started the “Today in the Archives” daily postings on the Houston County, TN. Archives Facebook page.

 

The Houston County Archives came about in a most unique manner, a manner which included a local murder. I doubt that there are very many archives that can say that the reason they were created was because of a murder. Well, in Houston County, TN, that is exactly what happened. In August of 2010 a local resident was researching her family history and the murder of her great-grandfather in 1921 on a corner in downtown Erin.

Old records stored at the Highway Department attic.

Old records stored at the Highway Department attic.

She had found court records pertaining to the murder on microfilm at the local library but what she really wanted was to see the actual documents. She asked the local circuit court clerk where these documents could be found and she was directed to the records vault in the basement of the courthouse. When she opened the vault door, she could not get in the room. The records had been stacked and stored all the way to the ceiling and to the door.

This was a call to action in the Houston County historical community and the birthing of the Houston County Archives.

I was one member of a six member committee tasked with saving our history that was stored in that records vault in the courthouse. The first day we worked on this project we knew immediately that we needed to create an archive of our very own to protect our county records. On February 1, 2011, I was hired as the part-time archivist and records manager. This position came out of the blue to me but it was one that coincided perfectly with what was then my current profession—that of a professional genealogist, owning and operating my own genealogy research firm. I had already done research in various repositories throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, including many county archives, so I knew the importance of preserving local records.

Oak and glass display case donated by the local historical society.

Oak and glass display case donated by the local historical society.

When I first started as our county archivist I found the job to be quite overwhelming due to the fact that the county’s records had not been archived, organized or in any other way preserved in its 143 year history. One can imagine the stacks of boxes, record books and loose papers that were stored not only in the records vault but also at the old highway department attic and the old jail—in the actual jail cells! It seems once we cleaned out one area we would be told of another area full of records.

As I began my journey as our county archivist, I quickly realized that there was a mountain of work to be done just to get the county records in a state that could be handled.

In 2011, our local historical society donated their collection of documents, photos and artifacts that they had collected since the 1980’s to the archives. They had nowhere to store the historic items and since we now had an archive, it was the perfect place. Also in 2011, the historical society donated two large, handmade oak and glass display cases for the Archives Office.

The Houston County Archives main purpose is to archive and preserve the county’s permanent records and to maintain the temporary records until the end of their retention schedules. Our archive is also a haven for historical records of all kinds pertaining to Houston County and any of its people. While our first priority is to the county records, we are pleased that we are also the only repository in our county to collect and preserve historical records and artifacts.

Railroad Memorabilia Display at our annual Open House, November 21, 2011

Railroad Memorabilia Display at our annual Open House, November 21, 2011

One of the most important things to me as an archivist is that visitors to the archives get to see, feel and touch history. In most archives all the documents, records and artifacts are stored away from the public and have to be requested. Well, in the Houston County Archives we do have most of our collections stored away, but we also have displays and exhibits of documents and artifacts that the public can view.

In 2012, I decided to tap into social media to expand the archive’s audience, and created our own Houston County, TN Archives Facebook page. Since we come across so many interesting items in our daily work, I decided to start a “Today in the Archives” daily post where I post a scan of an interesting document or a photo of an artifact that we have found in the records or that has been donated. I post our daily dose of history Monday-Friday and we have had a wonderful response from our audience, as well as from the archive community. We have been recognized by the Society of Tennessee Archivist and the Tennessee State Library and Archives for our Facebook page and daily postings.

We are extremely fortunate here in Houston County that even though our records were crammed in a records vault, they were dry and unharmed for the most part. We found no evidence of bugs or rodents and no mold or dampness. Our oldest records were tainted with a light covering of coal soot from when the records had been stored at some point and time in the past near coal stoves. I have had to be diligent in cleaning these early records, but after 1956 when the new and current courthouse was built our records were fairly clean and in great shape.

Tools of the trade used in the Houston County, TN Archive

Tools of the trade used in the Houston County, TN Archive

Unfortunately, we have suffered some record loss. Not due to a courthouse fire or some other act of nature but due to negligence of man. In 1956 when our current courthouse was built it was decided that the old courthouse was to be torn down first. The officials decided to store all the old records in the high school gym and local lore is that some officials took their records home with them with the understanding that they were to bring them back after the courthouse was finished. At some point, some of the records that were stored at the school gym were thrown away and we believe some officials did not bring back all the records they had in their possession. This records loss has mainly effected our loose court records, which are not complete from the years 1871-1956. We have loose court records for these years but there is not as much volume as there should be. After 1956 Houston County records are complete.

When I am not working on records at the archives you can find me speaking at various local group meetings advocating for our local archives and urging people to not throw away our history. I had heard so many stories of how records had been destroyed that I decided to start a campaign to Save Our History. In fact, in our Facebook daily postings we always add the line: “Don’t Throw It Away, Give It To The Archives”. Educating our community on what an archives is and what we do has been an important part of our success. Today, I get people all the time who walk into the archives asking, “Do you want this?” and hand me some old document, newspaper clipping or photograph. I never turn down anything and I thank them for Saving Our History.

Our little archive in Houston County may be small but we have a rich history and we are doing everything we can to save that history.

The woman that I spoke about at the beginning of this story who was looking for original documents about her murdered ancestor did find those records in our records vault after we worked almost a year on cleaning out the records vault. Just this month she was able to publish her book about the murder of Edward W. Rauscher in 1921. The book is “The Settling Place” by Ann Rauscher Smith Hagler.

So, when I am asked how or why the Houston County Archives was created, I like to say, “Well, you see, there was this murder in 1921, and the rest is history!”

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