Rob Christensen

A generation of North Carolina historians are passing from the scene

In this file photo historian H.G. Jones looks over his papers and sketches from his compilation of “Sketches in North Carolina USA: 1872 to 1878.” Jones died Oct. 14.
In this file photo historian H.G. Jones looks over his papers and sketches from his compilation of “Sketches in North Carolina USA: 1872 to 1878.” Jones died Oct. 14. 2002 News & Observer file photo

As a boy growing up in Statesville, William Powell shared courthouse benches with Civil War veterans – their stories firing his imagination and whetting a life-long appetite for history.

Powell would go on to become one of North Carolina’s leading historians and writers. But now his generation is passing from the scene.

Powell died on April 10 at age 95. One of his students, a fellow Civil War enthusiast, historian Jerry Cashion of Raleigh, died this month. I recently had lunch in Chapel Hill with H.G. Jones, whose mind seems undimmed at 91. Hopefully, he will be with us for a while.

They are our modern-day storytellers, the descendants of those who gathered around the campfires of earlier times.

Powell liked to say he learned the basics of history from his grandmother who would visit from Smithfield. She would ask: “What did you learn in school today?” Then he would recount his school-day lessons one by one – history at its most basic.

I never met Powell, but his works have been an important resource for me. His basic history, “North Carolina Through Four Centuries” is a go-to text. His “North Carolina Gazetteer,” updated with Michael Hill, is always close at hand.

Consider one work alone, “The Dictionary of North Carolina Biography,” which he conceived and edited, a six-volume effort published by the University of North Carolina Press containing 3,500 brief biographies of Tar Heel figures written by more than 1,000 historians.

I regarded “Pops” Cashion as a friend, as did so many others. Another Statesville boy, Cashion grew up fascinated by nearby Fort Dobbs, the lost fortification erected by frontier settlers as a defense from Cherokee attacks.

Cashion was a gifted teacher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, chairman of the North Carolina Historical Commission, and was a top official at the state Division of Archives, overseeing, among many other things, the state historical marker program. Among the students he mentored was Mike Easley, who would later go on to become governor.

There was no question, it seemed, you could ask about North Carolina history to which Cashion did not know the answer.

Cashion, sometimes called “The Squire” because of the farm he owned in Iredell County, was old school in all the best ways.

More fun than a mule

Although I had not met H.G. Jones until recently, I felt I had known him through his writing. Jones graciously agreed to share some of his research with me for a book project on which I was working.

Jones grew up on a tenant farm with no books in the Kill Quick community of Caswell County.

He soon discovered it was a lot more fun reading and writing than following a mule.

He went on become state archivist, developing the most comprehensive state archival and records management program in the country. He was director of the Department of Archives and History, and curator of the North Carolina Collection in Chapel Hill.

At age 91, earlier this year Jones published a new book, Miss Mary’s Money: Fortune and Misfortune in a North Carolina Family, 1760-1924. It is a story about a woman with a racially mixed family who helped save St. Mary’s College and aided in the modernization of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

These are some of North Carolina’s most gifted chroniclers. And the state has been very fortunate that they have passed our way.

Christensen: 919-829-4532 or rchristensen@newsobserver.com

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