Salisbury couple donates time to preserve history
SALISBURY – If you stop by the Historic Salisbury Foundation’s archive room on Depot Street, you’ll likely find Ray Barber and Carol Rathbun sorting through books, newspaper clippings, photographs and local artifacts.
It’s only open to the public on Wednesdays, but the couple are there almost daily by 8 a.m.
“The foundation has tons of records that have never been filed,” said Barber, the group’s volunteer archivist. “They are just sitting in boxes.”
When the pair, who are both retired, moved to Salisbury from Charlotte about a year ago, they decided to take on the project.
“It was upsetting to have all that information and nobody knew where anything was,” Rathbun said. “Nothing is labeled, nothing was dated.
“It was a mess, so we said somebody had to sort this out.”
Barber said it’s still a work in progress, but it’s slowly coming together.
“It’s going to take a while,” he said of the inventory process.
“We’ll never finish in our lifetime, but we’ve got to start,” Rathbun said.
Rathbun said they’d eventually like to set up a work space within the room where people could come and do research.
“A lot of this information isn’t at the library,” she said.
Barber said he’s already making progress on a directory of houses listed by street that could be a good resource for home buyers.
“If people want to buy a house they can come down and pull the file and find out if it is connected to any history,” he said. “We don’t have every house yet by any means, but that’s the goal.”
Brian Davis, executive director of the foundation, said he’s glad to see the archives finally being organized.
“We’ve spent 40 years collecting newspaper clippings, photos and books, but it’s never been put into a usable format,” he said. “They have really been leading the charge to do that.”
The couple is also working with fellow volunteer Anne Lyles to go through the personal library of more than 650 books donated by former Salisbury City Councilman Jim Dunn.
“They are really just amazing volunteers that are there for just about any project we need people for,” Davis said.
Barber has always been somewhat of a history enthusiast.
His first love is Civil War history.
Why, you ask? The answer is simple.
“I had 19 relatives in the war,” he said. “One died of disease, and one was killed, and 17 of them made it back. They hid well, I guess.”
Barber became even more enthralled with the Civil War when he read letters his great-grandfather, Charles Barber, had written home to his wife Fedelia.
“He was a very, very deep thinker,” he said. “For someone having only a sixth-grade education, you would’ve thought he had a degree.”
Charles Barber, a farmer by trade, entered the war at the age of 35.
“He went strictly to preserve the union. That’s what he said,” Barber said. “He believed strongly in the union.”
Barber said his great-grandfather wasn’t quite the same following the war.
“He was hit by a piece of shrapnel and could never really work much after that,” he said.
Barber spent four years in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War.
“I spent the Korean War in Europe,” he said with a laugh. “I was no hero.”
He felt an obligation to carry on his family’s legacy.
“My family has always been a military family,” he said. “We came to this country for the King Philip’s war in the 1600s and have been in every war since then, so I had to go.”
When Barber got out of the service, he decided to publish his great-grandfather’s letters, which he received from Charles Barber’s daughter when he was just a child.
He spent months typing up a total of 130 letters.
Barber had planned to simply reprint the letters from the local newspaper, which had run them in the 1920s, but he found they had been altered.
“They corrected all the spelling and took out anything they didn’t think was politically correct,” he said. “I had to start all over again with the originals.”
Barber, who grew up near Buffalo, N.Y., said he caught the history bug early while living with his grandfather.
“He was always telling me about things that happened in town,” he said. “He was very history minded and knew a lot about the family, so I just grew up with it.”
Later, Barber found he was interested in history in general through his work as a county archivist in upstate New York.
And so it began.When he isn’t working in the foundation’s archive room, Barber can be found leading tours of the Hall House and salvaging bricks from Grimes Mill.
He put in about 1,000 hours at the roller mill before it was destroyed by a five-alarm fire Jan. 16.
“It was kind of like losing your best friend,” Barber said of the museum’s destruction.
Barber’s also converted Rathbun into a history lover.
“She didn’t really like history at first,” he said.
But Rathbun boasts that’s a thing of the past.
“I can name every battlefield, every fort, every cemetery,” she said. “It’s more interesting when you’ve been there.”
Rathbun said she’s been a bit of a “tagalong,” going with Barber to various historical sites and volunteering right alongside him.
“The more you know, the more you want to know,” she said. “It’s kind of like being a detective, you get a name and want to know more.
“You learn what resources to use and how to find out information.”
Moving to Salisbury
The couple decided to move to Salisbury after Rathbun retired from her career as a kindergarten teacher with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System.
“We like the history here,” Rathbun said. “There wasn’t a lot of history in Charlotte. So much of it is gone, burned down or torn down.
“The history we want to be part of is here.”
The pair spent part of last week at the Hall House setting up an exhibit called “Captive in a Foreign Land: Life and Death in a Civil War Prison Camp.”
“Ray is a true Civil War aficionado, he really knows the different battles, the campaigns,” Davis said. “He’s the one who’s really behind the exhibit.”
The exhibit, which will be open from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through the end of the year, will include some artifacts from Barber’s personal collection and the foundation archives.
A uniform that belonged to Barber’s uncle, Edison Barber, will be on display.
“He won the Medal of Honor at the Battle of Deer Creek,” Barber said. “He had the choice to take the medal or 30 days leave, so he came back home to see his girlfriend and never got the medal.”
Edison Barber’s saddle, made of pigskin, is also part of the exhibit.
Barber said he has trunks full of Civil War memorabilia, much of which is still up in New York.
“Ray saves everything,” Rathbun said. “He doesn’t have anybody to leave this stuff to, so it’s good it will go to the archives.”
Rathbun is also working on another project.
She’ll be leading a group of women in a re-enactment of the Salisbury bread riot on March 16 to commemorate the 150th anniversary.
“It was a protest against the extreme inflation of staples like flour and molasses,” Davis said.
The women will travel from outside the Salisbury Post on West Innes Street down to the Square before ending up at the Rowan Museum on North Main Street.
“Those women were out with their hatchets trying to raise a little cain,” Rathbun said. “They were very young and had no means to provide for their families, and their men were gone so they were stuck.”
Barber said next the pair will work with foundation volunteers to restore the Blackmer House, which was damaged by a fire on Dec. 1, 1984.
“We’d like to have one room ready by October Tour, but I’m not sure whether or not we’re going to make it,” Barber said.
Davis said Salisbury is lucky to have preservationists like Barber and Rathbun.
“They put in hundreds and hundreds of volunteer hours each year,” he said. “They have been really amazing.”Contact lifestyle editor Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.