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Gatekeeper to the Smokies: Longtime Western Carolina University Head of Special Collections retires

coverI was five minutes late.

Trying to track down a parking spot outside the Hunter Library at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee last week, the task proved difficult, even with the students gone for the summer. Having never stepped foot in the library prior, I entered the wrong door of the building and found myself in the Mountain Heritage Center. After some helpful directions, I walked down a long corridor toward the main lobby of the library. And standing at the end of the hallway, in front of the elevator, was a towering figure. The figure waved at me and smiled.

It was George Frizzell. 

“I saw you pull up outside and came downstairs to make sure you didn’t get lost,” he said. 

As Head of Special Collections at WCU, Frizzell has spent the last 34 years of his life gathering and documenting the history of Western North Carolina and greater Southern Appalachia. From letters to photographs, artifacts to personal items, he has overseen it all, with the collection now including tens of thousands of pieces of information — all invaluable to the history of this region, all bringing together the people, places and things unique to our majestic backyard that is the Great Smoky Mountains.

Standing in the Hunter Library, while waiting for the elevator to his second floor office, I mention to Frizzell how vast and beautiful the space is, with endless aisles full of books and academic resources. He turns around and decides to show me some of the features in the building. As we approach the stairwell to the ground level of the library, he points to a wall filled with painted portraits of past WCU presidents dating back decades.

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“You know, I knew a lot them personally,” he said, only to pause for a moment and direct us back to the elevator. 

Getting off onto the second floor, I follow Frizzell to the Special Collections department. He stops at a large window and gazes out over the roof of the library and a nearby hillside.

“Right there used to be the old football field,” he pointed to the roof. “Half of the field is now the library, the other half is the Natural Sciences building next door. I have a picture from the 1920s someone took of the field from the top of that hill.” 

To know Frizzell, let alone to be in his presence, is to experience a person who is living and breathing Appalachian history. For someone who has never lived outside of Jackson County, he sure is respected and well known across the country and around the world for his work. Though both are notoriously elusive and in the midst of penning their latest works, acclaimed Southern Appalachian writers Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) and Ron Rash (Serena), quite possibly two of the most important and beloved authors in the modern era, each jumped at the chance to say a few words about Frizzell, and how vital his help was in the research needed for their bestselling novels. 

SEE ALSO: Friends of George: Reflections on Frizzell's legacy

At the end of this month, Frizzell will be retiring. His legacy will be forever remembered, as he spent countless years gathering the intricate and incredible stories of these mountains and its people. And yet, the most irreplaceable item in the entire collection is, well, Frizzell himself — a real, honest and genuine soul of endless curiosity and passion for the culture of Western North Carolina.

Garret K. Woodward: So, let’s get right down to it — are you 100 percent retiring?

George Frizzell: [Laughs]. Yes. Well, I’m finishing up a number of my projects right now, and I’m also going to be still working on some personal projects. 

GKW: What do you think about retiring? The work you’ve done here has been a huge part of your life.

GF: Well, 34 years of my life. I started off part-time for two and half years also teaching history courses. Cherokee history and other courses, and then became full-time in 1985. June 1985. 

GKW: You grew in Jackson County, right?

GF: Yes, indeed.

GKW: How did you find that love of history?

GF: I don’t know. I just remember hearing people talk about some of our history even though I couldn’t really find anything written down. But what they said fascinated me. When I was in elementary school, I remember that old rock school in Webster, which was a WPA (Works Progress Administration) building. It’s very historic, and I remember taking a walking tour around Webster in eighth grade. I heard the adults on the tour mention, “Oh, this is where Webster used to be the country seat” or “This is where the old courthouse was and the house across the street used to be the jail” or “This is where the old Mountain View Hotel was.” It was fascinating that here we are on this walking tour and all the old grownups just starting reminiscing and telling their own stories. Actually on my shelf over here (points behind him) I have a brick from the old courthouse. 

GKW: I guess also it might have been one of the first times for you as a kid that an adult looked at you as perhaps an equal, seeing as they wanted to share something with you…

GF: Yes. They’re telling you things and are hoping that you take it all in. And then when I got to college, here at Western Carolina, I went here for my undergraduate degree and master’s degree in history, then to Greensboro for a library science degree. At Western, I was taking a course about women in history. And for one of my assignments, I interviewed both my grandmothers who were still living. They started reminiscing and telling me about what life was like here back then. Our local genealogical society even published one of my interviews. One grandmother talked a lot about the mid-1920s when she and her family moved to the Piedmont area to work in the textile industry. And the other grandmother talked about living at the Blackwood Lumber Company (which operated south of Cullowhee from 1922 to 1945), and that my father was born there, which I didn’t know. Here I was in my 20s and I didn’t even know that about my father. So, I looked up everything about Blackwood. And the other grandmother talked about being part of the textile strike of 1929, and I had to look that up, too. 

GKW: You graduate college and you also get your library science degree. Is this when the idea of making your passion for history into a career starts taking shape?

GF: I got the degree in history in 1981 and was hired in Special Collections in 1982. We had a lot in the collection already at that point. But, I’ve been fortunate in being here at a time when people have become comfortable enough to share and donate some of the family papers and artifacts, where previously there was quite an emotional attachment to it. In my time here, we’ve quadrupled or more the amount of Civil War letters in the collection. People are realizing they need share these things, to get them out there. One of the things I really enjoy doing, and have been doing for over 30 years, are the programs and talks around the communities here in Western North Carolina. 

GKW: And it would seem poignant your drive to collect and preserve these things came around the early 1980s when a lot of those original turn of the century settlers were passing away.

GF: Yes. Well, for instance, we received a collection of glass negatives, all of which I could date, were dated to 1901. And we’ve digitized all of them, so people who can’t come to the library, from out west and in California, can access their history, because so many folks from here moved out there in the 1950s and 1960s and so on. 

GKW: What’s that like for you to see how much you’ve added to the collection in your time here as it now goes into the next phase?

GF: Oh, it’s very gratifying because I know that it will continue. I want people to know that Special Collections is something they need to keep in mind — please keep donating. Please keep looking for those family papers and share them. I want people to find those family letters, which mean so much to their family members, and to researchers, too. So many folks from here went to Washington and Oregon at the end of the 19th century, and I’d love to see people bring in those correspondences. And we need to connect that 1940s and 1950s gap to today. You need to start collecting these things now before they disappear. Like I say, here it’s not just a matter of collection and preserving items, it’s making sure that people can get to it, because if it’s locked away here it might as well be locked away in your dresser drawers. Here, we want people to find the information they need and protect the originals. 

GKW: Just in your time here the campus probably looks a lot different…

GF: Well, yes. [Laughs]. To give some perspective, although he couldn’t afford to graduate from here, my grandfather went to school here in 1915 when it was called the Cullowhee Normal & Industrial School. My father worked on campus throughout the 1960s and he would take me out on some of his routes. So, I can remember campus from the early 1960s. When I was growing up, campus was the old two-lane N.C. 107. To get here, I lived less than four miles away, half of which was a dirt road, which is now the new health services building out there. All kinds of new apartment buildings and school facilities are up there, too. 

GKW: One of the things I love about history is the idea that “nothing’s the same, everything’s the same.”

GF: Yes, of course. One of the things I find comforting about history is that it’s comforting to know that you’ll always have something to do because you’ll never run out of history. New history happens everyday. And when you get all these documents together, you can piece history together, you can connect the dots of incidents and people, and why things happened the way that they did. 

GKW: There are so many incredible characters and such a deep and rich history in Western North Carolina. This area not only raises a lot of these fascinating characters, it also attracts them from all over, too. What does it mean to you to be able to peek into their life history and learn about them?

GF: I’ve never lived outside Jackson County, so for me this has always been home. Home in terms of the people and the mountains, in terms of the area and the buildings. You know, I helped in raising funds for the new county library, and when you stand up on that high hill overlooking downtown Sylva, most of it still looks the same. And that’s very comforting to me. I mean, I meet people who move here and who never knew who their grandparents were. I grew up with my grandparents. I could look out the window and could see their house on the hillside above me. The other grandparents were just seven miles away and we’d see them every Sunday. To me, that was normal. I remember as a kid riding our bikes all around the countryside. One time, our school bus broke down and the bus driver opened up the doors and said, “Well, this is going to take awhile, you might as well walk home.” [Laughs]. Nobody thought anything of it. It was a friendly stretch of road, might as well walk on. 

GKW: Do you think a lot about the folks you’ve researched and come across? All of those faces and the lives you aim to preserve and share?

GF: Yes, and it can become a little eerie. I bought one of those family tree maker programs. Not for my family tree, but to put together one for all these letters I’m reading and documenting. I was trying to make connections between all these local families. Who wrote this letter? Who are these people? We got in one letter from a lady who was writing her husband who was away in the Civil War, and she talks about stopping in at Joseph Cathey’s store in Forks of Pigeon (now Canton). And I knew we had some of Joseph Cathey’s store ledgers, and sure enough, there she is in the ledgers stopping in to buy something. 

GKW: And you’ve also played a big role in helping with the research for two of the biggest writers in Southern Appalachia, and possibly of the modern era many would say — Charles Frazier and Ron Rash. [Editor’s Note: Frizzell helped contribute research for Frazier’s Thirteen Moons and Rash’s Serena.] 

GF: Well, quite frankly, it’s the same service we’d give anybody who would come in here. Everybody’s questions are equally important to us. It’s been a pleasure to work with Charles and Ron, too. They’re very laidback, very friendly. The only time I got really taken back was when Ron named his photographer “Frizzell” in Serena. 

GKW: Why is it important that we preserve these people’s lives, their letters, artifacts, photographs and histories? 

GF: Well, because it gives you a sense of place, and not just for people born here. There’s a lot of people that are so interested in our history, and many of them move here and want to know, “Where am I?” and “What happened here?” I’ve done programs where maybe half the audience was from elsewhere, but they were so engaged and interested in the history and development of this region. If you don’t have the resources to explain the history to them, then it can be very difficult to do so. What I like about folks like Charles Frazier and Ron Rash is that they’re able to fill in some of those gaps. They’re able to personalize history, able to take those events and time periods and connect with their readers. 

GKW: Any advice for the next chapter of Special Collections?

GF: I’m hoping they will be able to collect the documentation for the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st century. Like I say, there’s an emotional attachment to these items. At least, please preserve them, and always keep up in mind. 

GKW: Thirty-four years you’ve been involved with Special Collections. What do you think about that period of time and how it has shaped you as a person?

GF: What really shaped me was doing all of those community programs and talks, where you could really make a connection with the people around you. It was about getting to interact with people and having them share their memories with you. I’d still like to do those programs, too. And I can’t imagine a day where I won’t talk about history.

GKW: You’re last day as Head of Special Collections is June 30. And on that day, when you turn off the lights in your office, walk down the hallway, take the elevator down to the first floor and go out the front door of the Hunter Library for the last time, what will be going through your head?

GF: Well, that it was all worth it. I’ve been really fortunate to have a job where I got to use my degree in history and use my interests, and get to interact with all these people, to help them and work with them — it was all worthwhile.

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