Library staff preserves Rowan County’s historical records

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 7, 2020

By Laurie Lyda
Rowan Public Library

Rowan Public Library’s Edith M. Clark History Room collections are directly benefiting from the dedication of teleworking library staff. The updates and transcriptions will, in turn, prove valuable for researchers of all skill levels.

RPL’s History Room concentrates primarily on western North Carolina genealogy and history, including all areas of Rowan County. Holdings include over 23,000 books, 5,700 microforms, 436 manuscript collections, dozens of genealogical journals, and a solid collection of civil war and civil war prison materials. Genealogy materials include abstracts, indices, and guides to primary source material used by genealogists.

The History Room is also a records repository for Rowan County, the City of Salisbury, and other local organizations and municipalities. This includes its large collection of surname files, maintained since the 1950s. For example, the McCubbins collection is an important primary source for many Americans who trace their families back to colonial times. Other materials include local and regional oral histories, films, maps, and other genealogical materials.

In order to maintain this status as a vital repository, a vast number of materials must be processed and made available to researchers. Practically speaking, this is difficult under normal operating circumstances: Quite often, History Room staff spend the entirety of their shifts assisting patrons, which leaves little time and attention for indexing the Salisbury Post archives or transcribing deteriorating materials into longer-lasting formats.

History Room Supervisor Gretchen Witt is excited that staff are combining their energies. “The final products will help so many researchers in the years to come,” she said.

Witt’s own project involves reviewing and organizing the Wilkerson World War II letters collection. Rose McGinnis Wilkerson was from Salisbury and lived here with her parents, Robert and Mamie McGinnis, during the war while her husband, Capt. Frank Wilkerson, Jr., served in the Pacific Theatre. “He seems to have written her everyday for nearly four years from what I can tell so far,” Witt said.

Under Witt’s supervision, several additional projects are also underway:

The Salisbury Post has been and continues to be a significant resource for genealogical and local historical research for Rowan County, its municipalities and surrounding areas. While the paper is available on microfilm, indexing the paper for local news helps patrons access information so much faster and more easily. Many genealogy researchers are especially looking for obituaries from which they can garner additional family information. The History Room has obituary indexes for 53 years of the over 100 years of the Post.   

The Harrison manuscripts contain letters and other documents handed down by a man who had stored furniture and other items for people who were moving. Often, these items were never sent for, and the man didn’t feel right throwing them away; his descendants donated them to the History Room. This collection includes a letter and deed belonging to Harriet Tubman Davis. These documents are in the process of being sorted, flattened and organized so they can be itemized and categorized so they can be listed in the finding aid. They may be added to the History Room’s online archives, ensuring broader accessibility.

A county’s cemetery books contain records of burial locations that are important resources for genealogists. Many counties have cemetery series with indices that are several volumes in length. Providing a compiled index of those volumes saves a great deal of research time. RPL staff are currently creating combined indices of cemetery series from Davidson, Cabarrus, and Iredell counties.

During the Great Depression and leading up to WWII, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) put a great many scholars and artists to work by having them catalog and preserve older records. The N.C. Miscellaneous Cemeteries Books were created during this time. The History Room’s copy is becoming brittle, fragile, and the type is fading. This information is being transcribed to ensure its preservation and to increase accessibility via newer printed copies and/or e-copies.

Mamie McCubbins transcribed and indexed the early Rowan Court records of both Superior Court and the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions. Her research and record transcription was done in the 1930s-40s, in part, for the WPA. These books are now brittle and difficult to use, so they are being retyped and reprinted, which will ensure preservation and access to this valuable material.

The Amity Hill Spirit is a newsletter covering the Amity Hill area churches and community, which includes areas in Cabarrus, Iredell, and Rowan. The newsletter reports births, christenings, marriages, deaths and other life moments that are vital to genealogical research. The History Room’s copies of The Amity Hill Spirit are being indexed in a single, easily searchable document.

The History Room’s holdings include a broad selection of Civil War materials, many of which contain information about the Salisbury Confederate Prison. To better manage and maintain current and future Civil War materials, the History Room’s bibliography is being thoroughly updated.

Though RPL’s History Room is currently closed to the public, research assistance remains available. For assistance Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., email or call 980-432-8670.

Laurie Lyda is library services manager at the Rowan Public Library.