Keeping history alive

Published 10:00 pm Friday, July 14, 2017

Museum holds history, artifacts, genealogies of Polk’s residents

Care to know which Polk Countians served in World War I? Want to see WWI uniform pieces? Would you like to study hand-made wooden toys, as used by generations of children?

If you’d like to check out the new genealogy section dedicated to the histories of many Polk County families; if you’d like to see the printing press which produced many issues of the Tryon Daily Bulletin; or study a local blockade whiskey still; or see more local history than one would think can be displayed in one place, visit the Polk County Historical Museum in Columbus.

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The museum is located in the lower level of the Feagan Building, 60 Walker Street, just off Mills Street (Hwy. 108).

Polk County Historical Museum chief docent, well-known local historian, and musical group leader James Metcalf poses with a press used to print many issues of the Tryon Daily Bulletin.

Local historian and musician James Metcalf, chief docent, or guide, of which some 15 serve visitors at the museum, has a strong connection to the museum, the Polk County Historical Association, and to local history, as his ancestors arrived in what is now Polk County, around 1770.

Metcalf noted that the Polk County Historical Association was founded in 1977, a prominent driver being Betty Doubleday Frost (related to Abner Doubleday, who became a Union general in the Civil War, but who did not invent baseball).

Originally housed in the Tryon Depot, starting in 1980, the museum was moved to its present location six years ago.

“This (current location) has got much better room,” Metcalf explained. Also, due to many public and private offices located in Columbus, and its more central location in the county, “we have about ten times the traffic we had in Tryon.”

While his contributions to baseball are murky, Abner Doubleday did retrieve a Confederate cannonball fired on Fort Sumter, in possibly the first action in the Civil War. That cannonball rests in the museum.

Included in the museum’s World War I display are photographs of Polk County residents who served in “the Great War.” Also included in the WWI display is a reference to Polk County’s African American soldiers who served.

Original uniform pieces, including a 100-year-old gas mask, add a realistic and somber touch to that display.

George Comparetto, curator of the museum’s artifacts, noted, “There are a lot of interesting things here.”

Comparetto began working at the museum around 2000.

“When I moved here, there was an ad in the newspaper for someone to work on displays. After being told to work on this, and work on that, sometimes in quick succession, Comparetto remembers learning that the then-curator had quit.

“Next thing I know, the (Association) president called me ‘curator’.”

One of many display items is an older piano, once used by a local piano instructor. Comparetto related that many visitors recognize that instrument as the one on which they learned to play.

Comparetto noted that when anyone donates an artifact, someone at the museum must fill out a form, noting who donated what and when, along with other information. Only once, he mentioned, did any dispute ever arise; it was settled by having an accession form for that object.

Not all would-be donations find their way into the museum. Comparetto explained that each item accepted must be relevant to Polk County history.

He noted, “Sometimes I’ll come in, and something (a donated article) will be lying at the front door.” In such instances, a donor’s information is often not available, resulting in a tag stating that the donor is unknown. He noted that some of those objects are particularly interesting.

To inquire about donating anything, contact the museum at 828-894-3351, 828- 817-3722 (after hours), or visit the museum during regular hours (Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m., and Saturdays 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.).

“I’ve been interested in history all my life,” Comparetto stated. He and Metcalf have not been the only ones. He related that two high school students liked the museum so much that they served ably as docents until departing for college.

A newer section of the museum is devoted to genealogy, with books on families’ histories donated by each family, arranged in alphabetical order by last name.

One of the smaller items on display is a vest made by a woman for her husband who went to fight in the Civil War, and was killed. Comparetto said that members of that family still come in and are photographed wearing the vest.

Not all the museum’s work is in the museum.

“One of the better things we’ve done is inventorying all the cemeteries in Polk County (information on those is in a hardcover book published for the museum, helping family members locate graves of their loved ones). Because not all sites were inventoried the first time, the original edition (of two) contains addendums.

Comparetto pointed out a display of recordings of past monthly programs, available to anyone who was unable to attend. Those programs are held the first Tuesday of the month at 2:30 p.m. Check the Tryon Daily Bulletin for details on upcoming programs.

What brings Metcalf to the historical association, and to its museum?

“History has always been a big thing for me. My heroes have always been Daniel Boone, George Washington . . . and sports heroes.”

Two of Metcalf’s ancestors went to Boonesborough (in Kentucky) with Daniel Boone. Some of Metcalf’s ancestors served in the French and Indian War, the American Revolution (where Warner Metcalf served as a drummer boy at age 12) and the Civil War. Five Metcalfs served in the Confederacy, with the Tryon Mountain Boys in the 54th North Carolina Regiment. Only two survived.

James Metcalf’s own chance at life was helped when his great-grandfather, George Washington Metcalf, was too young to serve in the Civil War. His contribution was to help hide livestock from raiders.

“It was a terrible economic time,” Metcalf noted.

He noted of the museum, “We’re proud of it.”