By Jeff Keeling
The degree to which Chad Bailey enjoys studying the past could have a very positive impact on the future of Tennessee’s oldest county.
If the 2009 David Crockett High School graduate has his way, the day may soon come when visiting genealogy buffs could spend a day researching at Jonesborough’s Washington County Archives, the Heritage Alliance and elsewhere, and then take another day using their smartphones to follow databases and GPS to any of the dozens – if not hundreds – of local cemeteries and other sites of interest.
An East Tennessee State University master’s candidate, Bailey is a major player – and the youngest – in Washington County’s numerous genealogical, historical and archival endeavors. And earlier this month, he took a step toward a career in the field by graduating from the Tennessee Archives Institute.
Bailey has taken a full dive into the past since catching the genealogy and history bug about five years ago. Many people helped spur him into the field, but Bailey credits octogenarian Elaine Cantrell for really lighting a fire that led him to add a history major to his accounting studies and begin a path toward a career.
“We still get out and go together,” Bailey said of he and Cantrell while standing in Speedwell Cemetery off of Cherokee Road, where two sets of his great-great-great grandparents are buried. “It’s just fun. You get to dig up the dirt and know people. It’s like a detective story.”
Bailey first became interested in genealogy while a seventh-grader at Lamar School, doing a project in Sharon Verble’s class. It was a few years before the bug bit again.
“In 2010 my grandma died, and some events led up to me starting work with the Jonesborough Genealogical Society (JGS) and meeting Elaine Cantrell,” Bailey said. He and Cantrell began visiting area cemeteries, which he called a community’s “first archives.”
Data from tombstones, Bailey said, tell genealogists stories or provide them clues that can lead to additional information – whether through public records, newspapers or personal collections of letters and other material.
Those stories are part of an overall array of local assets that could really help draw tourists, Bailey said. He works part-time for a keeper of some of those assets, the Jonesborough-based Heritage Alliance of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, and will volunteer at a third – the Washington County Archives soon to occupy a renovated building on Main Street in Jonesborough.
Taken together, the county’s historic assets are among Bailey’s area of study as he pursues a masters in liberal studies, with a concentration in archival studies. His recent archives institute certification means he could legally manage a state-certified archives, but he plans to continue rounding out his skill set.
“The classes in Nashville taught me a lot,” Bailey said as the weak midday sun of late fall shone brightly on the graves of his forebears, Daniel and Achsah Huffine. “You get behind-the-scenes access to some of the collections they have, you learn archival theory and you see some of the problems they have to deal with.”
That knowledge, and what he adds to it, could serve Bailey and the area well should the Washington County Archives’ official opening provide additional momentum for what is known as “heritage tourism.”
Bailey’s post-graduate thesis title sounds, well, post-graduate, but its ramifications could be very concrete. Titled “Spatial Theory in Historic Tourism Development,” it posits that Washington County has significant opportunities to attract visitors and their money – if it continues to develop ways to attract them.
“It’s space versus place,” Bailey said. “Space is just a geographic region and a place is the memories and cultural traditions that are attached to a space.”
The importance of Washington County as a place has helped drive the recent push for a proper archives. Archives Manager Ned Irwin will be hiring a part-time assistant when the building is further along.
“I think the archives will be a big turning point,” Bailey said. “They’re going to bring a lot of people in with Washington County being the first county in Tennessee.”
Bailey’s supervisor at the Heritage Alliance, Executive Director Deborah Montanti, agrees.
“The fact that we have the oldest records in the state gives us a unique opportunity to be a central place for researchers from all over the world who are interested in westward expansion and the first 100 years after the founding of this country,” Montanti said. “There are pieces of all of that right here.”
Bailey, she said, “has been key in helping us deal with a lot of acquisitions.” He spent a semester helping catalog, protect and arrange Jonesborough newspapers from deep into the past. This fall, he has focused on cataloging improvements at the Alliance’s own archives located in the Jonesborough Visitors Center. Bailey also serves as first vice president of the JGS, and chairs its projects committee.
The Tennessee State Library and Archives (TSLA) sponsors the archives institute. Bailey, who follows Gene Hurdt and Betty Jane Hylton as the county’s third graduate, went to Nashville for three-day courses over three consecutive years. Sessions range from arrangement and description of records, records retention schedules and creation of finding aids for the public to document care and preservation.
Montanti said the sky is the limit for Bailey and what the pursuit of his passion can mean for heritage preservation in Washington County.
“He’s young, and the fact that he’s gone out of his way to involve himself with so many different people in the world of research and archives, and to avail himself of every experience he can get his hands on, is really indicative of his dedication to the field and to Washington County.”
For his part, Bailey sees a world of possibilities for visitors.
“As we get further along in our development of archives and museums – what spatial theory calls ‘third space’ – we’ll have the documents that can draw a genealogist because their great grandfather’s grave is here, or whatever reason,” Bailey said.
“If we have a survey that identifies where that is and we have a Google map or whatever showing where the cemetery is, we can point them in that direction. Most of the time they’re going to spend a night in the hotel, buy food and gas, and most of the time buy souvenirs or some sort and you’re getting sales tax dollars off of that.”