Ensuring our history’s future
Published 12:01 am Saturday, April 18, 2015
Carter County’s historical roots run deep. From the founding of the first settlement along the banks of the Watauga River and the Overmountain Men who marched to victory, down through the years to the families living here today, Carter County has a lot of stories to tell and preserve.
Many of the stories which helped shaped the county and its residents can be found in the vaults of the Carter County Courthouse in records dating back to a time before Tennessee was even a state. Old wills, marriage records, court documents, deeds, professional licensing, bonds and records of births and deaths are just some of the old records found at the courthouse.
Carter County Historian Scott Bowers has a dream to see these records protected, a dream he says can and should become a reality. The creation of a Carter County Historical Archives would be the best way to protect the historical documents and make sure they are preserved for future generations.
“We are so fortunate to have all these records here,” Bowers said. “I talk to other historians and they are envious.”
When Bowers became the county historian a few years ago, he began working to see what records were on file and to do what he could to organize and protect them. Over the years, records were not always filed and preserved the way they should have been, he said.
One of Bowers’ finds was a box containing documents from the late 1700s and early 1800s. The items had simply been folded up and placed inside.
“This just isn’t a recommended way to store records,” Bowers said.
Bowers was able to remove some of the records, many of which had been damaged by years of being folded up and improperly stored. There are some items Bowers said he has not yet unfolded, fearful the documents would completely fall apart.
The oldest record Bowers has found is an old will from 1795. “That’s pre-Tennessee,” he said.
Also found in the vaults are documents and records from the Civil War, something that Bowers said is rare to find in a southern courthouse.
“The fact that we have any Civil War records is a luxury,” he said. “If you go to North Carolina you don’t find that, or even over to Sullivan County.” Many records from that time frame were destroyed as battling armies moved through the area or in incidents later, such as fires.
The Carter County Courthouse was heavily damaged in November 1932 by a fire that destroyed the attic and roof — but not the history of the building. The valuable records remained untouched in the vaults, Bowers said.
In addition to filed documents, the county’s historical records include old log books listing marriages, actions taken by the county court, criminal court proceedings and trials and a variety of other county business.
While the books have fared better than the documents, many of the older books are showing their age, Bowers said. Some of them are falling apart at the bindings which makes the pages come loose and become damaged.
In more modern times, office holders have found better ways to store and maintain their records but having a county archive would be the best way to also preserve these important documents, Bowers said.
“The office holders have done an overall good job protecting these records, but if we can do it better, why not?” he said. “We’ve got records here (Mary Gouge’s office), records down in Jody Bristol’s office, in Melissa Moreland’s office, over in Johnny Blankenship’s office and some down in the basement of the public defender’s office. Why not bring them all together in one place that people can visit.”
Creating a county archive would also allow the county to hire an archivist, which is something Bowers said is greatly needed.
“We need to have somebody who actually went to school for this, someone who understands what these records are and has the knowledge to know how to preserve them,” he said. “I’m a historian, I’m not an archivist. I did not go to school for this.”
Preserving such old records takes special training and skill; not just anyone can do the job, he said. “I don’t call an electrician to fix my toilet,” Bowers added.
Having an archive would also allow for the records to be preserved digitally, he said. In the past, the members of the Carter County Records Commmission proposed adding a small fee to the filing of official records, such as deeds, business licenses and marriage licenses. That fee would then be earmarked for the archive and upkeep of the county’s records.
However the idea did not make it past a vote by the committee. Bowers said he hopes the idea will be looked at again.
“It has to go through the records commission first and then the full commission,” he said.
In addition to the possibility of local funding, Bowers said there are state funds and grants available for county archives, which Bowers said must be kept separately from city government archives under state law.
One thing is certain however, he said, the issue of preserving these vital historical records must be addressed.
“This discussion cannot be ignored anymore,” Bowers said. “Doing nothing is an action and I feel it is a negative action.
“We can do the right things and move forward or we can keep kicking the can down the road,” he added. “I think it’s time we pick that can up.”