When I (Meme) was in graduate school, one of the books in our required reading was THE PAST IS A FOREIGN COUNTRY by David Lowenthal (which is not exactly a page turner even for the most passionate historians). He described our ways of thinking of the past as creating a place that was removed from our own experience of life. How many times do we compare the past to now and try to distance ourselves in some way? “Can you believe they dressed like that? What were they thinking? And look at what they did! I would never do that if I lived back then!” But what about the history of Thomasville and Thomas County? We live here, so surely our past can’t be that foreign? Or can it?
Back in 2009, the History Center received its first request for what we now call “House Histories.” Since then, we’ve completed 47 and counting. This year is looking to be our busiest house hunting season yet with ten requests so far. It seems everyone wants to know a little more about the places they live and work in. There’s been a lot to uncover, and I don’t just mean what’s under the vinyl siding. New research has led us to completely rewrite the stories of well-known structures in this community, dispelling or proving urban legends along the way. For those who are interested, here’s a look at how we do that.
The first step is a visit to the Thomas County Probate Court where property deeds go back to the early 1820s before we were even called Thomas County. So begins an exercise routine: pick the heaviest and largest book from the very top shelf above your head and bring it down to the table. Find that your next record is in the smaller but still heavy book across the room and crowd up your table with it. Locate your next record in the big heavy books in the next room on the bottom shelf and lift those up to the counter top – don’t hit your head on the edge of the table. Run back to the other room and balance precariously on your toes as you put the other book back on the top shelf in the other room. Repeat.
If you’re lucky, you’ll find the chain of title. If not, someone will have died without a will and another owner will change their name, or your record is contained in a lost book (the dreaded Book N that was destroyed in the late 19th century under mysterious circumstances). Once we have as complete a picture as possible of the deed records, its time to head back to the History Center. In the comfort of our own files we start to flesh out the story. We look for familiar names to see if we have any records of our own. We also head down the rabbit hole of ancestry websites and online newspaper archives to find as many delicious morsels about the home. The end product is a report, some longer than others, of every map, photo, story, and document pertaining to the property and the people who inhabited it. So are these house histories portraits of a “foreign country” like Lowenthal stated? Yes and no. We know these buildings: they’re our homes, our work spaces, our environment. But they’ve changed over the years, some more than others, in their appearance, use, and level of upkeep. As much as the stories of these past inhabitants are unfamiliar to us, the themes of their lives (birth, death, and all the in between) are familiar, just like the houses we share with those people from so long ago.