Out of the Past

Ginny Thompson, the president of the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society. Photo by Tim Robison

Ginny Thompson, the president of the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society. Photo by Tim Robison

It may not be generally known that Henderson County and its county seat are named for someone who never set foot in either place. “The county’s named after an early 19th-century judge who sat on the state Supreme Court at the time,” says Ginny Thompson, the president of the Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society. “It was a political thing.”

Such is the fickle nature of history, but no deterrent to the meticulous work of the Society since 1983 documenting the county’s colorful and sometimes tumultuous past. Ginny and her 30 fellow volunteers preside over an extensive collection of documents, maps and photographs which together tell the story of Henderson County from its earliest days, when it was carved out of neighboring Buncombe County in 1838.

Ginny, who moved to Hendersonville from Illinois in 1998 on her retirement from a teaching career, soon found herself visiting the Society’s archives on Main Street. “I like to learn about a new community and its history,” Ginny says of her first months here. She joined the Society the following year and has been president for the past ten years, helping to serve more than a thousand visitors who consult the records each year for both personal and professional reasons.

“We assist in research and make the information more accessible to the public,” Ginny explains, offering two examples in the form of the society’s Marriage Indexes — two bound volumes, separated by gender, listing men and woman married in the county from 1851 to 1963, painstakingly compiled from court and church records. There are other indexes for births, deaths, and one for World War One draft registrations, along with a cemetery survey published in 1995 and a two-volume edition of the county’s history.

Equally impressive is the Society’s most recent book, a hardbound volume published in 2010 of transcripts from the proceedings of the North Carolina Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, covering the court’s first decade in operation, from 1839 to 1848. An attempt to read the spidery, faded handwriting of the original documents, even in photocopied form, underscored the immensity of the task. “It took four years to transcribe just this first volume,” Ginny says, noting that volunteers from as far away as the Midwest, all with patience and good eyesight, helped decipher the originals. The effort paid off when the book won an Excellence In Publishing award from the North Carolina Genealogical Society. “There are more volumes coming, but it was tedious and time-consuming and we need to take a breather,” Ginny says, noting that the court met for 20 more years before being dissolved in 1868, when the state’s judicial system was revamped during Reconstruction.

The court records offer a fascinating glimpse into what life was like for those who came before, some of them with names still familiar to many locals and with hints of the tragedies and hardships of earlier times. Miles and Elizabeth Gofourth, for example, both died of unnamed causes in 1843, leaving behind the items that defined their daily life, carefully inventoried by the court. Among their possessions was their bedroom furniture, valued by the court at $5.00, and Elizabeth’s saddle, among the more precious items, valued at $10.27. The court even took note of “one barrel and six gallons” of the Gofourth’s peach brandy, which it thought was worth $3.50.

While much of the society’s holdings are derived from official archives kept across Main Street in the Old Courthouse or across the state in Raleigh, some of its most important holdings arrived from unexpected sources. The Calvin Oaks Photography Collection, Ginny says, “came to us out of the blue, from a man in Tennessee who was a distant cousin of Calvin Oaks, who used to spend his summers here with his wife. This gentleman in Tennessee ended up with the albums after an estate sale, read the inscriptions on the backs of the pictures, and got in touch with us.” The photographs, taken during the years just before World War One and comprising two black leather albums and loose pictures preserved in clear plastic sleeves, impart a fondness that the Oaks clearly felt for their summer mountain retreat. Young farmers pose proudly before their machinery, men and woman loll in straw hats and long dresses in sun-dappled meadows, a trolley glides down a bucolic Fifth Avenue devoid of pedestrians or other traffic. In a photograph dated 1912, what is identified as “the Smythe estate,” later to become Carl Sandburg’s Connemara, sweeps away from the camera to the main house perched high on a distant hill.

An antique dealer in South Carolina proved equally responsible to history when he came across a box of letters that was a leftover from another estate sale and realized they documented the county’s Miller family, including deeds and hand-drawn property maps for land bought by the family’s progenitor, Andrew Miller. “Andrew was born in Ireland in 1750 and had moved here by the 1790’s,” Ginny says, squinting at the original deed granted to Andrew for land along the French Broad River. “He was the first person to be buried in the old churchyard at the French Broad Baptist Church.”

Some 80 years later, in April of 1874, a young Harriet Miller was writing from her boarding school in Rawlings, South Carolina to her father back home in Hendersonville, gently dissuading him from coming to fetch her home for the summer. “It will cost so much more and I think we have caused you to lay out a great deal of money,” the young woman wrote. Was she really being fiscally thoughtful, or was her reluctance hinting at some romantic attachment as yet unknown to her father? From such words written so long ago, history becomes human.

The Henderson County Genealogical and Historical Society welcomes visitors at 400 N. Main Street weekdays between 10am and 4pm. Tax-deductible donations, membership fees and book sales support the Society, a nonprofit organization. For more information, visit hcghs.com or call 828-693-1531.

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