Shirley Simmons is standing inside the building that served as post office for the community of Fuquay Springs in the early 1900s when she is momentarily stumped.
For more than an hour, she has recited a nonstop litany of facts about this town in Southwest Wake County – the occupations held by each member of its founding families, the locations of its schools, how many prisoners were typically held in its jail.
But the name of one of its postmasters has escaped her, and she is miffed.
“I should know that,” she chastises herself, as she struggles to read the name from a framed certificate hanging in the wall.
It’s a rare lapse for Simmons, 79, a retired high school history and civics teacher who is widely acknowledged to be both the town’s walking encyclopedia and the driving force behind its historic preservation efforts.
As volunteer coordinator for the Museums of Fuquay-Varina, Simmons has led an impressive expansion of the museum’s holdings over the past six years, including the addition and restoration of several historic buildings and a growing collection of artifacts.
She does her own research into historical issues, has written a book on the town’s history, and is the go-to person for anyone with a question on the area’s history.
Some of her research will be featured Sunday at a tour of historic homes along Academy Street that will help fund historic markers. And Simmons will be there sharing her wealth of stories.
Fuquay-Varina Mayor John Byrne says he considers Simmons to be the town’s official historian, even if she now lives out of town in Harnett County.
“She has helped our town immeasurably in her efforts with the museums to provide a sense of history for our area,” says Byrne. “She has a passion for history, and she’s shared that not only with the young people she taught but by pushing historic preservation in Fuquay-Varina.”
Surprisingly, Simmons is not a Fuquay-Varina native. She grew up in Avery County, and spent much of her young life in Virginia.
Her father was a preacher, and eventually he brought his family back to North Carolina, where Simmons attended Campbell University before finishing her degree at Wake Forest University. She studied history, she said, which was always a favorite subject.
“I liked history and home economics and my dad said I should go with history if I wanted to make a living,” she says.
She moved to Fuquay-Varina in 1963, the same year the town of Fuquay Springs united with the Varina community and adopted the resulting town’s current name.
Her husband, Ernest, worked as an engineer at an electronics company in town, and Simmons settled in at the high school, where she was longtime student council sponsor and a chaperone on trips to the nation’s capital.
She taught civics and history courses for more than 30 years, and she would sometimes showcase local history by showing movie footage of the town from the 1930s. She also assigned a project in which students interviewed local elders; those recordings now serve as part of the museum’s audio-visual collection.
While she was involved in the town’s history community before, her volunteer work increased when she retired in 1993.
Her first major restoration project was the “Squire” Ballentine Schoolhouse, a donated two-room building she helped restore and fill with artifacts, including the first diploma awarded from Fuquay Springs High School.
Next, she and other volunteers bought and restored the old post office, whose time period was established by a rubber stamper found in a squirrel’s nest in the building’s rafters.
Holding on to history
That restoration was complete in 2009, the hundredth anniversary of Fuquay Springs’ incorporation. Simmons served on the committee that planned the centennial celebration, and she co-wrote a book on the town’s history that was published as part of the occasion.
But rather than ending the committee’s efforts once the centennial passed, Simmons seized on the momentum it created. Residents had started bringing a wide variety of artifacts, and Simmons helped persuade the town to donate a larger space to hold them all.
The Centennial Museum now shares a municipal building with a DMV office.
“We told the town, ‘If we collected this stuff, we don’t want to give it back,’” she says.
Simmons consulted with state officials on how to preserve artifacts and helped set up displays showcasing different aspects of the town’s history, including a replica of a 1950s doctor office.
The museum also includes what used to be the town jail – a room popular with children – and one cell has been kept in its historic condition.
Simmons has spearheaded the addition of more historic buildings to the land behind the museum, including a log playhouse and a tobacco barn, and has written the grants that help fund their restoration.
Next month, a train caboose that would have once traveled through Fuquay-Varina will join the other buildings. At Simmons’ urging, an architect is drawing up plans for a replica of the town’s old depot.
The town is reworking the area around the building to include a walking trail, educational space and lights so it can be used at night.
The museums are open for tours on Wednesday afternoons, during which Simmons is a constant and busy presence. (Tours can be scheduled by appointment on other days.)
On a recent Wednesday, a local businessman dropped in to ask her for a copy of a picture of an old downtown theater. An Amtrak employee who’s leading the caboose project stopped by with an update.
In an idle moment, she asks a few volunteers to take down a giant framed portrait of a bride that was donated by a local photographer and needs to be restored.
A recent donation is a cannonball safe that was apparently in a local bank. Simmons is waiting to hear back from the manufacturer to get its exact age.
Other ongoing projects include an effort to digitize all of the photographs donated by The Independent, the local newspaper that closed in 2013, and preserving the museum’s collection of textiles.
Simmons leads tours of the museum, and also trains other docents.
And her influence goes beyond the museum. She also wrote a history of her church, where she is a longtime Sunday school teacher. She’s active in the town’s Woman’s Club and Garden Club, and has for many years helped organize medical trips for Belarusian children to the area.
“I don’t know when she sleeps,” jokes Fran Baggs, a former student of Simmons’ and a fellow member of the Fuquay-Varina Questers group, another local history group. “But I’ll tell you, every time I talk to Shirley, I learn something new.”
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Born: July 14, 1935, Crossnore
Residence: Harnett County
Career: Retired high school teacher; volunteer coordinator, Museums of Fuquay-Varina
Education: B.A. history, Wake Forest University; M.A. history, N.C. State University
Family: Husband Ernest
Fun Fact: “Varina” was not an actual name, but the pen name used by a woman when she wrote letters to a Confederate soldier during the Civil War. The soldier would go on to marry her and name the area post office “Varina.”
Want to visit?
Museums of Fuquay-Varina will be holding a tour of historic homes on Academy Street from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $10. Learn more at www.fuquay-varina-museums.org.