Most precious records could be in own building by year’s end
Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
In a drab courthouse basement below the Washington County Clerk’s office, Ned Irwin opens a red-bound book of yellowed pages. It’s a story of Tennessee, the pages peopled at their very outset with recognizable names (John Sevier, William Bean, Andrew Jackson) from the state’s earliest history.
In August 1778, book number one reveals, the “county court” had various weighty matters to decide including what to do with Moses Crawford, who apparently was unsympathetic to the revolutionary cause. The court determined that Crawford, “be imprisoned during the present war with Great Britain and that the sheriff take the whole of his estate into custody.”
By sometime this year, those pages and the events they record will receive their due respect when Washington County’s archives open at 103 W. Main Street in Jonesborough. There, the former mayor’s office building is being renovated to house the oldest and most important records, said Irwin, the county’s first-ever archivist and records manager.
“What we’re trying to get moved over here will be the more historic, more valuable records, and those that are going to have the most research interest to people coming in,” Irwin said last week. He added that his official presence since 2012 and the anticipation of a proper archives already drives significant inquiries.
“We’ve had several hundred reference inquiries just this year, from a total. That leads me to believe that once we are open and people are coming in, they’re going to have a lot of research interest and make good use of the reference room.”
Deborah Montanti, executive director of the Heritage Alliance in Jonesborough, said a county archives has been the “missing link” in a breadth of historic offerings available in Tennessee’s oldest town and county.
“Researchers are excited, genealogists are excited – having the mother of Tennessee’s mother lode, its archives, is a major resource for people here and all over the country,” Montanti said. “A lot of people can trace members of their family tree back to this region, even if they were just passing through, because this was the gateway to the West.”
The building renovation and placement of records is just the “end of the beginning” of an effort to get Tennessee’s oldest county its own archives that dates back more than a decade.
When Irwin was over the Archives of Appalachia, housed at East Tennessee State University, a group of local historians and genealogists began a long, arduous push for Washington County to establish a proper archives. Irwin joined in an advisory and supporting role.
In 2011, the county established an archives department, and a way to pay for it through a schedule of fees on several types of public transactions. In March 2012, Irwin came on as the county’s first-ever archivist and records manager. He said he was happy in his ETSU job, which he held for 18 years, but called his current post, “a unique career opportunity.
“It’s very rare that you get to start something from scratch in your career.”
Recently, other county departments at 103 W. Main began relocating to the downtown courthouse. When that process is complete, J.E. Green Co. will begin transforming the building into a proper archives. The Johnson City contractor submitted a winning bid of $400,796 for the work.
In advance of that day and with the help of dedicated volunteers such as Betty Jane Hylton, a Johnson Citian and recent Tennessee Archives Institute graduate, Irwin has spent more than two years laying groundwork. Newer records have been placed in the old county jail. Volunteers are cataloging some of the more intriguing older records.
Those earliest minutes and court pleas, covering quarterly sessions of what was then called the “County Court” are 236 years old. It was February 1778 when John Sevier was named clerk of that court, and its members began hearing cases.
The same August day that Moses Crawford was sentended, the court heard a jailed man’s bargain for his freedom – in exchange for joining the Continental Service “for three years or until the (Revolutionary) war is over” – and also declared a judgment of 20 pounds against a Samuel Tate for “insulting the court.”
Tate paid up, by the way, and the jailbird, one Joseph Buller, was discharged from his “gaol” sentence in order to serve in the Army.
The process of getting those and other records of interest into the new archive building can’t come soon enough for Irwin, for a cadre of local historians or for the folks at the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
When the job was posted, Irwin said he realized his involvement up to that time had left him feeling highly vested in the long-term outcome.
“I always thought it was real important, and I guess after awhile when you’ve been involved in something so closely and felt so strongly about it, it’s sort of like having a baby. You got it to that stage and you didn’t want anybody else to raise it.”
Visitors to the archives will find a high-ceilinged, expansive reference room inside the front entrance on Main. Irwin and the other staff person will have offices, and there will be a staff and volunteer work area, all on the first floor. The rest of the main floor probably will hold the most valuable, oldest records, with additional records of value and interest to historians and genealogists on the second floor.
Volunteer help will be key going forward, Irwin said. Fees supporting his office are sufficient to pay for an additional part-time staff member, but keeping the reference room open consistently will require more help.
Visitors will be able to view scanned and digitized records on computers (that scanning process is ongoing and will take years, Irwin said) or request retrieval of the originals. Viewing will be under the supervision of staff or trained volunteers.
It will become a crucial part of historic attractions in Jonesborough said Montanti, whose group leads educational tours of the town. The archives can interact with resources such as historic cemeteries and the Chester Inn museum, right across the street, which holds many historic artifacts.
“It creates a beautiful connection,” she said. “It provides one place for research that hasn’t been available before. Really, these archives have not been that accessible.”
For information on how to volunteer, either now or once the building opens, contact Irwin at (423) 753-0393 or firstname.lastname@example.org.