A gem in the Foothills

Published 8:00 am Saturday, September 1, 2018

Polk County Historical Association preserving local treasures

Nestled in the basement of the Feagan building in Columbus lies “a gem that most people don’t know about,” says Polk County Historical Association President Pat McCool.

American minister and human rights activist Malcolm X said that “history is a people’s memory,” and within the walls of the PCHA Museum are countless antiques and artifacts — many free for guests to handle — on display, which serve to add detail and richness to these memories.

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Here, a World War I military uniform stands near a photograph of African-American soldiers in the 350th Machine Gun Battalion in that same war — 11 of those men Polk County natives.

A whisky still stands across from a sample of a luxe rug handmade in local textile artist Lillian Mills Mosseller’s Tryon studio.

Hanging on a nearby  wall is a miniature wooden figurine of the famous Morris the horse, made by the Tryon Toy Makers and Woodcarvers in the early 1900s.

The PCHA was established in the 1970s, and has grown to approximately 200 members today. Meetings are held at 2:30 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month, and feature a wide range of topics, from “The History of the Polk County Sherriff’s Office” to August’s feature, a presentation by members of The Bostic Lincoln Center in neighboring Rutherford County.

These “keepers of lore” shared substantial evidence that America’s 16th commander in chief was in fact not born in Kentucky, but rather born — illegitimately — in Rutherford County.

According to traditional stories, Lincoln’s mother, Nancy Hanks, had a love affair with Abraham Enloe, the man to whom she was “bound out” to work when her family could no longer afford to care for her. Not long after the birth of a “dark haired little boy named Abraham,” Nancy was shipped west to Kentucky, where she married Tom Lincoln.

The rest, as they say, is history.     

The PCHA has a few other presidential gems in its mine, such as the letter local politician Thurston Arledge received from Sen. John Kennedy in 1960, congratulating Mr. Arledge on his win in the U.S. Senate race, and a check-writing machine that sat on President Calvin Coolidge’s White House desk. After his death, President Coolidge’s widow, Grace, spent several summers in Polk County visiting a close friend on White Oak Mountain.

Among the 200 members in PCHA is Chief Docent James Metcalf, of Saluda, a native whose “PoCo” roots have been traced back before the Revolutionary War. James is a positive wealth of information, and says that he wants the people of Polk County “to know that we have so many things hidden that they can dig up and find mysteries long-forgotten.”

Famed psychiatrist Carl Jung once asked of us “who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books, but lives in our very blood?” The spilling of familial blood was one such story that James shared with a recent visitor.

A gentleman from Rock Hill, South Carolina, came into museum knowing little of the prominent Weaver family from which he hailed. The Weaver plantation manufactured Weaver Whisky in the time of the Civil War.

I envision James rubbing his hands together eagerly as he informs the visitor that several of his ancestors were handcuffed together and shot by a Confederate Home Guard firing squad on Houston Road.

“I was able to take him to the ivy-covered hill where the family home was and up to the family graveyard way up in the woods” James says. “I can help [people] find their past.”    

Unlike many historical associations, PCHA has not been gifted or deeded a permanent facility from which to operate, and Ted Owens says that “membership dues are the biggest, sustainable financial support at the moment.”

From time to time, a private estate will offer a bequest “which is desperately needed” James say. President McCool shares that that the association is working to develop a long-range plan that will allow the group to continue.

“It’s our turn to make sure we preserve the history that folks before us have collected and kept safe.”

As James and I chat and walk among the abundant museum artifacts, locals Judy Zitzer and Linda McDougal make an impromptu pass through the museum, with their friend Jackie O’Dea, from Charlotte. The ladies are amazed by the myriad photographs and treasures on display.

Jackie (soon to be a resident of nearby Landrum) vows to return on another day.

“I want to come back and take my time and read everything,” she says.

Maybe one of these ladies will become a member of the association.

Regardless, their experience in the museum, like mine has, will serve to spread the word about Polk County’s hidden gem, and help to keep the “people’s memory” alive.

To learn more about The Polk County Historical Association, visit polknchistory.org.

Julie Carroll is a family-centered West Virginia native who’s called western North Carolina home since 2007. She’s a speech-language pathologist and writer who reads, travels and plays in the dirt.