Lew Powells decades-long career as a newspaper journalist was just the ticket to prepare him for his next act in life as a dogged history detective. Powells curiosity is the fuel that drives him on his path of uncovering obscure and relevant North Carolina cultural lore.
Powell, who lives in Charlotte, is a regular contributor of brief historical bites to North Carolina Miscellany, a website produced through the North Carolina Collection at UNC Chapel Hill. The site offers daily postings exploring the history, culture and literature of the Tar Heel state. It is the largest state collection of its kind in the country.
And Powell has made more than 740 posts since June 2009.
The site has a broad appeal, featuring a number of categories. The Recipe category recently yielded old-time recipes for cooling summer drinks such as Navy Grog and Almond Punch from AsheVittles, out of Asheville. Photos of Chang Bunkers (one of the famous Siamese twins Chang and Eng) silverware were shown under the Artifacts of the Month category.
A recent Postcard category entry highlighted the 124th birthday of the Belk department stores with postcards showing Belk stores on several Main Street locations. Tar Talk, Memorabilia and New books hold interest for North Carolinians and non-natives alike.
I simply love discovering things otherwise not well known, said Powell, 67. North Carolina is unique because we have our own quirky culture and history, and I love to share that with people.
Tar Heel culture
Powell was born in the rural Arkansas town of Helena and grew up in a farming family in Mississippi. He went to the University of Mississippi, where he was an accounting major. That vocation didnt suit him.
Accounting was not really an option for me, said Powell, After graduation, I ended up taking a sportswriter position at the Jacksonville Journal for $100 per week.
He joined The Charlotte Observer in 1974 as a feature writer and retired 25 years later as Forum editor. His zeal for sharing Tar Heel cultural knowledge is born from his time in Charlotte, where he came to recognize that many see the city as separate from the rest of the state.
The notions of the great state of Mecklenburg, and Sodom on the South Carolina line were indications of conflicting cultural forces at work I had to explore, said Powell. It is no coincidence that Jesse Helms and Terry Sanford served the state during the same time frame and demonstrates the cultural battleground that is North Carolina.
Robert Anthony, curator of the North Carolina Collection, said he came to know Lew well in 2007 after his donation of political memorabilia to the North Carolina Collection.Powell donated 2,698 North Carolina-related pinback buttons, badges, ribbons, cloth swatches, promotional cards, and stickers collected over years.
When we started NC Miscellany, Lew seemed to be a natural choice to blog about these memorabilia, given his knowledge and understanding of their origins, Anthony said. Lews blog posts show his great sense of humor and his eye for irony.
Powell is the sites only nonstaff contributor and serves as an unpaid volunteer.
Powell uses a number of sources in scouting material for posting. The thrill of the hunt includes routine online searches, a watchful eye for Carolina references in periodicals he keeps up with and scanning new books.
One entry he made recently was only three short paragraphs, yet offered a fascinating tidbit regarding the origins of the fictional hillbilly band portrayed on The Andy Griffith Show.
According to Powells post, The Darlings were based on a band originated by banjo player Doug Dillard.
Although Dillard wasnt a North Carolinian he was born in Salem, Mo. the one he played on TV played a key part in the bluegrass music revival of the 1960s.
Dillard was a founder of the band bearing his surname except on The Andy Griffith Show, where they became the mute but musical Darlings.
Powells enthusiasm for posting out-of-the-way details stretches all the way back to his earliest years as a journalist. Together with lifelong friend and former Observer editor Ed Williams, the two men produced an independent paper known as the Mississippi Freelance in 1969-1970. The papers motto was reporting the otherwise unreported.
Forty-two years later, Lew Powell is still doing just that.