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Library and partners produce video about Ney

By Elizabeth G. Cook

Salisbury Post

Rowan County historians have debated the identity of Peter Stewart Ney since the 19th century.

Was he simply a talented educator, as he presented himself to people in Rowan, Iredell and Davie counties?

Or was he Napoleon’s courageous marshal, hiding behind a new identity in America after escaping a firing squad in France in 1815?

Now the county’s fourth-graders have the opportunity to learn about Ney and come to their own conclusions, thanks to a video initiated by Rowan Public Library.

“The NaySayers” is the second in what library staff members expect to be an ongoing video series, “A Ramble Through Rowan.”

Jeff Hall, operations manager, says he got the idea for creating the videos after seeing a face he knew on television one night — former Judge Clarence Horton of Kannapolis, talking about the history of Cabarrus County.

The public library in Cabarrus had produced videos about its county history, and Hall began thinking how Rowan’s rich history might be put in narrative, video form.

He took the idea to Rowan Public Library’s management team, and the idea took off. Friends of Rowan Public Library funded the first video, “Lot 19 Becomes Rowan Library.”

All good videos tell a story, and the staff next turned to one of the most well-known and controversial stories from Rowan history, the story of Peter Ney.

Partners in this production included Third Creek Presbyterian Church, whose property includes Ney’s grave; Emilia Kennedy, the descendant of one of Ney’s favorite students, Mary Houston Dalton of Iredell County; and Davidson College, which received Ney’s papers upon his death.

Of particular help were David and Tina Hall, who own what in Ney’s time was the Osborne Foard Plantation. Ney died in a house on the plantation, and the Halls have some rare Ney artifacts.

The star of the documentary video — the “talent,” as Hall says — is Dr. Gary Freeze, associate professor of history at Catawba College and an expert on Rowan County lore.

And Bonita Bloodworth, director of Horizons Unlimited, worked with library staff to make sure the script was age-appropriate for fourth-graders and is creating curriculum to go with it. A writing assignment in which students draw their own conclusions about the mystery will be part of it.

Gretchen Witt, Rowan’s history room librarian, said the project required supplemental research and a hunt for material to make the video visually appealing. There was plenty of material for Ney the French officer, but very few visual images tied to Ney the rural Rowan school teacher. But there is ample footage of Freeze narrating the story from Third Creek Presbyterian Church, Davidson College and other landmarks pertinent to Ney’s life.

The Blanche and Julian Robertson Foundation is supporting the video series, and a camera crew shot footage in Virginia earlier this month for a third one — this one focused on the Great Wagon Road that brought so many settlers to Rowan County.

The videos are likely to pique viewers’ interest in Rowan history. Hall says the idea was to lead them back to Rowan Public Library and its rich historical collection, and to improve knowledge of Rowan’s cultural history.

The next video will personalize the Wagon Road story by following the migration of the Michael Braun and John Knox families, whose descendants are numerous in Rowan County.

History is, after all, the story of people’s lives.

“It’s not as interesting if you don’t look at it through somebody’s eyes,” Witt says.

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“The NaySayers” is shown regularly on Channel 16 in the Salisbury area and Channel 22 in southern Rowan. Copies of the DVD can be purchased from Rowan Public Library branches for $10 a copy.

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