[An unidentified smartly-dressed young woman of Randolph County, circa-1855. The net-work gloves, which she may have knitted herself, are an amazing work of art. This glass plate positive image- an “ambrotype”- was discovered with other albums and antique photographs which were sold out of the Stout family in Franklinville. It is one of the tragic losses of local history that wonderful images such as this lose their identities.]
The end of any year is a time to take stock, evaluate what has been working and what hasn’t. After almost a full year’s work on this blog, my evaluation is this: qualified success.
The success: this blog has been better and more widely received by readers than I ever expected. The leverage of the internet continues to surprise me, though obviously by now it shouldn’t. The award from the NC Society of Historians was a happy recognition of the work involved; I’m indebted to Warren Dixon for the nomination, and I must say it’s a real pleasure to win an award associated with Paul Green, North Carolina’s best-known playwright. I actually met him once, back in high school, when he judged a playwrighting contest I was entered into. He was a legend even then, has become more so since, and I’m proud to be associated in some small way with him.
The qualification: I wish I had written more. When I decided to get serious with the blog last December, I actually thought I could write something here every day. That turned out to be wildly optimistic. Since then I’ve aimed for once a week, and have occasionally made do with once a month. That doesn’t satisfy me at all, but the demands of making a living and taking care of my two Russian boys comes first.
Researching and writing history is a pleasure for me, sometimes a guilty pleasure, and has almost never paid a nickel. Part of becoming “an authority” on any subject is being sought out to deliver definitive answers, but local history appears to be an area where people expect answer to be free. The information is “out there” somewhere, publicly available, and many people seem to think historians have just stumbled on the answers, reading them out of The Big Book of Local History, perhaps. Information is in fact more available today than ever, thanks in large part to the internet and especially to Google.
When I first began researching, answers were painstakingly extracted from archived documents and dusty books, one or two at a time if I was lucky; and most resources required an actual trip to the physical location of the library or courthouse. That’s no longer the case, but that kind of research required a willingness to be open to the serendipity of research. The infrequent trips were too valuable to focus on just one question, so I carried multiple inquiries with me, and always kept an eye out for clues and leads and seemingly extraneous facts that might lead to something else, somewhere else.
The internet can be used that way, too, but my observations on researchers today is that they look only for the answers to the questions they have, not to the bigger context of what they don’t know. When I began writing here in earnest, it was because I’ve actually picked up a LOT of knowledge about various things while looking for the answers to something else. My entire interest in textile history grew out of my quest to figure out what exactly the cotton mill in Franklinville was making from 1871 to 1915: when I asked the weaving professor at NC State “What is a seamless bag?” he replied, “There’s no such thing.” Since I had one on my desk at the time, there was obviously something lacking either in my question or his answer, and my search for the answer lead into the history and technology of weaving, American textile manufacturing, and the consumption and marketing not only of textiles but of food packaging and home furnishings. I still need to get all that written up some day.
Here is a quote by one of my favorite historians that sums up my historical writing:
History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are. – David C. McCullough.
“History is who we are and why we are the way we are.” In no place is that more applicable than to Randolph County. We have always been different from the rest of North Carolina. Sometimes that has been frustrating; sometimes it has been a point of pride. But the differences didn’t just start yesterday, or last year, or last century. They go back to the settlement of the region, and to the people from many other states and countries and religions and political persuasions who showed up at this spot in America’s geography and worked to make a home and a living here. Learning to understand and appreciate those differences and distinctions is the work of a historian.