Archive for October, 2010

Randolph County: A Sense of Place

October 19, 2010

[Click on the photograph for an enlarged view]

I have not posted here for about six months, but not because I’ve been on vacation.  (Actually,  I did take 3 weeks off in August for my first trip to Russia, but that’s another story).

I have spent a lot of time working on a new book, a photographic history of Randolph County which is being published by the Arcadia company, publishers of hundreds of local histories.  They have been great to work with, and the whole thing has been a learning experience for me (mostly about the technical requirements for scanning and printing historic photographs).

I tried to do this solo 6 or 7 years ago, and couldn’t handle the writing, the scanning, and everything else it took to make a living simultaneously.  Fortunately, in the intervening time technology has advanced so that it has become a manageable thing.  When I wrote my first book in 1981, publication involved typesetting and cutting and pasting text and photographs on graph paper with rubber cement.  Copying photographs involved an elaborate “photo stand” device with extra lights and a lot of sweat.  Now photos can be scanned “while u wait,” as they should be, so people never have to part with their precious originals.

For the last 18 months I’ve been writing and re-writing the text for the book- but that was actually the easy part.  Harder was scanning the photographs at the correct resolution for printing- which is much higher than the resolution which looks good on a computer screen.  Almost all the illustrations used on this blog are scanned at 300 dots per inch or less.  The Arcadia illustrations are usually scanned at 600 dpi- primarily so a small photograph doesn’t loose its detail when enlarged.  But the hardest job was actually picking out the most important, useful and valuable 225 photographs that could be printed in a 126-page book, from the 600 or more photographs that I thought were really deserving of publication.

One of the great barely-tapped resources for Randolph County history is the public library’s historic photograph collection.    There are several thousand photos available there now, and many have been added as a result of my sorting through them for this book.  About a third of the illustrations are from my personal photograph collection, and many were taken by the amateur photographers (and also first cousins) Hugh Parks Jr. and George Russell.  I have used illustrations from both in this blog before, as they were among the first people in the county to take informal, outdoor photographs of everyday life (as opposed to the posed studio shots and still lifes mandated by the slow photographic processes available before 1890).

It was not always possible to use my favorite photos, usually because the copies available to me would not reproduce well in print.  This self-portrait of Hugh Parks Jr. about 1900 is one of those.  With portraits of his mother and father on the wall in the background, he is tending his camera while shooting his reflection in a mirror.  The composition has a silvery, otherworldly effect which brings to my mind the evanescent nature of human life, as it gradually fades into history.

I wanted to use photographs not just as illustrations, but as a sort of slide show tour through Randolph County history.  Therefore, each photograph is not included just for its own merits, but because it could be used to tell some part of the county’s story.  The text is organized thematically, in seven chapters.  The first chapter is about the idea of “home”– not just buildings, structures, and landmarks but people.  My historic architectural inventory published in 1985 was just about buildings; in this first chapter I wanted to make it clear that houses are homes for families, and that each structure includes a geneaology of human habitation.  So when possible, I included the photo of the builder with the picture of his house.  And I specifically looked for a photo of the owner/builder at the age he would have been when he built the house.  For example, the best-known images of Governor Jonathan Worth and his brother Dr. John Milton Worth were taken late in their lives– they look like somebody’s great-grandfather.  I was able to discover photos of both of them in their 40s, when they were in the prime of life.  I also found early pictures of other well-known county luminaries such as Braxton Craven, John M. Odell, and Henry B. Elliott.  The oldest portrait is not a photograph at all, but a silhouette cut out by hand, that hangs on a bedroom wall in Blandwood mansion in Greensboro.  Some of the hardest illustrations to find were those showing the county’s black citizens at home or at play– our historical collections need to make a better effort to document the history of local minority groups.

The second chapter covers agriculture; the third deals with work; the fourth, transportation; the fifth, churches, schools and social groups; the sixth illustrates public service in various forms; and the seventh ends with recreation and entertainment.

Some of the photos, I am happy to say, have already been published and extensively written about in this blog.  Some have never before been published, and I will treat them to future blog entries of their own.  Entire books could be compiled of photographs of local covered bridges, or of local schools and students, or of local churches and congregations, or of local mills and employees.  A separate book on Asheboro is a definite possibility if this one proves to be popular.

I have already been asked numerous times to tell the story of the cover photo (which is cropped on the cover but is set forth above in its entirety).  Unfortunately, there’s not much information available.  The good folks at Arcadia asked me to send them 4 or 5 illustrations I thought would make a good cover, and that was one I sent.   But it wasn’t my first choice, not because it isn’t a great photo, but because I know almost nothing about it.  I bought it in a local antique shop.  On the back is written, several times in several different curly scripts, “I.H. Skene” or “F.H. Skeen” .  That, and the information in the picture itself, are all I know about it.  The setting is a group of young people, 46 of them, posed at some kind of gathering.  The clothing worn by most is very formal, which could argue either for a “Sunday Best” church group or a school graduation celebration.  It stylistically dates them to the period right around World War I, and seems to be appropriate for cool weather.   The flags they hold have 6 rows of 8 stars- 48 states- and Arizona, the 48th state, was added to the union on February 14, 1912.   “National Flag Day” was first proclaimed as a holiday by President Woodrow Wilson, and celebrated on June 14, 1916.  It would be a nice story if that was what brought these people together- but I’m thinking that their clothing would be a little hot for a North Carolina June!  So choose what you like best- Sunday School or Graduation or Flag Day- and remember from now on to make it easier for future historians by captioning your own photographs.

The book is officially available in bookstores and on Amazon dot com on November 15th.  Unofficially, I already have a copy, and it looks great.  The price is $21.99.