Gold Thimble in a Haystack

A photo of an air cadet in World War II, 1942.

A photo of an air cadet in World War II, 1942.

The long-running PBS series Antiques Roadshow has an undeniable appeal. Even those who aren’t immersed in the world of vintage collectibles are often fascinated by the unusual items brought in by ordinary Americans. Beyond the pieces’ varying values, assessed on air by experts, it’s often the personal stories behind them that generate the most interest.

Locals have their own spin on the concept: an annual “show and tell” held every February, sponsored by the Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society. The Society schedules its general meetings every other month — but the public show-and-tell event is a bigger draw. “Each year, we think, ‘Well, it can’t be any better,’” says Ginny Thompson, the Society’s board president. “But it is. The variety is always amazing.”

Attendees are encouraged to bring an item — “an artifact, a document, a letter, whatever,” says Thompson — and share its story with the group. Long-time attendee and board member Bill Gerard says that anything of interest is welcome. “You never know what’s going to show up,” he says. There’s a primary focus on items with some kind of family history, but Gerard says that isn’t a strict rule.

“Someone might bring in an old farm tool, and ask people to guess what it is,” explains Thompson, who’s been on the board since before the first show-and-tell 15 years ago. “One woman who collects milk bottles brought in some from the old Biltmore Dairy,” recalls Gerard.

Thompson and Gerard agree that there’s no such thing as a “typical” item brought to share, since the artifacts are so personal. “I have a thimble that I have taken in; it was made with gold from the 1849 gold rush in California, and then brought back to my grandmother,” says Thompson.

signed-book-rzAt last year’s meeting, someone shared a truly rare bit of local history: the family bible of C.M. Pace, the judge in Henderson county for 57 years (1868-1925). Another attendee showed the guest ledger from Hendersonville’s famed St. John Hotel, which burned to the ground in 1915.

The gathering attracts military stories and artifacts, most often from the Civil War and the World War II era, Thompson says. “Those are always very interesting, and very personal. And the stories are enhanced because of that.” But the items might not always be local to Henderson County, she notes. “Because we have members from all over.”

A good example is something Bill Gerard brought to show-and-tell a few years back. It was one of the public-notice posters that had been nailed to utility poles in California in 1942, announcing the impending internment of Japanese-Americans. A boyhood friend knew of Gerard’s interest in history, so he gave him the posters.

A poster following the attack on Pearl Harbor ordering the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry.

A poster following the attack on Pearl Harbor ordering the internment of persons of Japanese ancestry.

“I had only seen them a few times before, in museums,” Gerard says. Since he grew up in that region, he had friends whose families had been affected by the forced internments; he recalls that many of the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) had “lost everything. But many of them [eventually] got back on their feet, creating a very successful living for themselves.”

Show-and-tell is meant to be a fun, informal gathering. “We never plan anything ahead of time,” says Thompson, “and there are always more than enough participants.” Cultural value is emphasized, not monetary worth. And some of the presentations can evolve into longer, more in-depth discussions at future meetings.

Because of the event’s enduring popularity, Thompson does have one friendly message for those planning to share a document or artifact from their family collection. “Our request is that they keep their presentation short, say, three minutes.” Otherwise, she says, laughing, “we’d be there all day long!”

This year’s show-and-tell event will be held Saturday, February 4, 10am at the office of the Henderson County Genealogical & Historical Society (400 North Main St.). For more information, call 828-693-1531 or e-mail hcghs@bellsouth.net.

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