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Wednesday, 09 January 2008 00:00

An account of Haywood County

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By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

The crowning achievement of Haywood County’s bicentennial celebration is a 600-page, hardcover book that will be the first definitive account of the county’s 200-year history.

The county commissioners set aside $40,000 and put the Haywood County Historical Society in charge of the project. The group hired three local writers — Canton historian Patrick Willis, Mountaineer writer Kathy Ross, and Smoky Mountain News contributor Michael Beadle — to research and author the volume.

“This is a one-time deal in many, many years. There is not a published history of Haywood County that I know of,” said Bruce Briggs, historical society member and chairman of the book’s steering committee.

The volume will be about 15 chapters and will touch on various topics including the early history of the county, agriculture, industry and commerce, social organization, and many other subjects, Willis said.

Published accounts of the county’s history have largely been limited to family and genealogy— which has turned out to be one of the more difficult aspects of researching the book. As stories are passed down in family lore, details become altered and memories differ from person to person, making it difficult to determine what truly occurred.

“There have been some past histories of the county that are good in some respects but have some limitations. They’re not as academic and their sources are somewhat questionable. That’s been one of the hurdles is to try and support information that has come from questionable sources. Sometimes we have to find a second or third source to make sure what we say is right,” explained Willis.

Even newspapers and census records — two seemingly accurate sources of historical record — aren’t always necessarily reliable.

“One of the things you find out is that newspapers made mistakes 100 years ago. This is one of the problems that people have. They think that anything in black and white is accurate, but censuses made errors with names and dates and things like that,” Briggs said.

Briggs gave an example of a time he encountered this problem. While working on a medical history of the county several years ago, he found a census record that listed what would have been the first woman physician in Haywood County. Briggs couldn’t find a single second source to back up that information, however — until he found a distant relative of the woman who clarified that she was a musician, not a physician. The census taker had misheard the description of her occupation.

Still, newspapers are a valuable source for historians. Ross has relied heavily on them for her research, for several reasons.

“The nice thing about newspapers is that they give you a perspective of that very day, and how they thought about issues at that very moment,” she said.

The authors of the Haywood county history book gathered additional information by putting out a request for residents to bring in personal histories and photographs to share with the historical society.

“We found a lot of local and family histories that people are very proud of and interested in, and we’re trying to include as much as we can into a broader context. We want to maybe use some of these personal histories as examples for a book that definitely says where we’ve come from and where we’re going in the future,” Willis said.

The historical society catalogues information that anyone brings to them and keeps it at the Haywood County Library. This is to ensure that the history of past generations is preserved.

“Every year, a certain amount of history is thrown away because someone comes across the material and doesn’t realize what it is,” Briggs said. “I can guarantee the library is safer than your collection.”

Families that don’t wish to donate personal items can still bring them in and have them copied and catalogued. Though not all the information the historical society receives will be used in this book, it is important to have the items for future research, Ross said.

“One thing people need to be prepared for is that not everything will be in this one book, but if people give their information to the historical society, they’ll be able to write books in the future and have a resource and central place to find this information,” Ross said.

Stuffing the entire history of the county into one manuscript has been challenging.

“Our problem is putting 200 years of history in 600 pages,” Briggs said. “This county has a rich history, and they had a lot of things that you don’t see that need to go in there and that people can sit back and be proud of.”

Ross and Willis both discovered things through their research of the county that they weren’t aware of before — even though both are well-versed in the area’s history.

For Ross, it was realizing the profound impact of the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept the United States from 1917-18.

“In this county hundreds died — sometimes even entire families. You can go back and look in newspapers and see references to the number of people who died,” she said.

One of the things Willis said intrigued him is “the local and family pride and how big family was in local life.” He said close-knit communities like Iron Duff and Beaverdam weren’t something that could be found everywhere.

“From an outsider’s perspective, it was different from a lot of places,” he said.

Those working on the Haywood history book have been meeting and talking about the project for over a year. They hope to have a volume out by Christmas.

“A lot of the nitty gritty work will be done in the next six to eight months,” Ross said.

The historical society still has to secure a publisher and someone to design the front cover. Though these details have yet to be worked out, the society is certain of one thing — the finished product will be impressive.

“This is probably the only book in the next many years about Haywood County history. It needs to be a first-class book. We don’t need to spare dollars for quality of paper or hardback,” Briggs said.

Briggs estimates the book, which will have a hard cover and photographs, will cost around $30. Where it will be available hasn’t been determined.

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