Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I love my job the most when I take the role of a magician. How is a local historian like a magician, you may ask? With a few magic words, I can transform any number of broken pieces of old trash into objects of veneration and interest.

For instance, we've got a piece of a crumbling old brick in the collection. Big deal. Well, what if I tell you (with the authority of a real, live historian) that it was the first parcel package mailed by the Spartanburg Post Office around the turn of the century? Suddenly, it's kind of interesting. You might think, "Huh!" or "I'd like to see that."

But I'm as much a victim of magic as I am one who wields it. Bits of junk catch my eye all the time and I want to snatch them up for the collection or for me. I'm particularly vulnerable, apparently, when it comes to stone.

Construction will soon begin on the new USC Upstate School of Business between the Cultural Center and the Montgomery Building on St. John Street. On my walk to lunch one day, I spied a hunk of granite half buried in the dirt a few feet from the sidewalk. So, as is my wont, I began thinking about the history of that site. There was a car repair shop and an abandoned railroad spur. Before that there was a National Guard Armory and a Southern Railway Freight Depot. Further back on the site, there was a loom factory that dated to the late 1800s. There was also an old private school, the Hastoc School, located on that site. Almost certainly, though, the granite has one specific origin: the 1920s-era National Guard Armory that had two-foot thick solid granite exterior walls. The building was demolished in 2002 to make way for the Renaissance Project and most of the granite was hauled away.

So after work one day last week, I put on some jeans and boots and brought my shovel to do a little on-site poking and prodding. I ended up unearthing several large chunks of granite, many of them finely coated with concrete grout remnants. Knowing that the whole site would soon be graded and the excess soil simply discarded, I took home these stones for some backyard landscaping projects. (It's not stealing, it's salvaging!)
I've also "salvaged" about two dozen local granite cobblestones and inherited (as in, they came with my house) stones used in Soil Conservation Service camps throughout the county.

But these aren't simply stones, they're nearly forgotten pieces of local history. They hold a kind of magic that prior human use has somehow given them, made all the more special by their re-discovery. I'm certain that this allure is what draws people to history museums and historic sites in the first place. Most of these things are insignificant without their stories. And a good storyteller can make any object, place, or experience holy. For me, having a head full of local history makes everywhere I go a sacred place. I try hard through research and exploration to add the lenses of the past to my views of the present. I want to be able to look past the years and see these places and these people at the different stages of their existence. I'm always excited to meet someone with deep family roots here because it means I can speculate that my ancestors ran into or knew their ancestors. And although I'm always sad/angry to see an old building go, I feel like I have a secret when I can look at a site and see what stood there years before, when others might only see a vacant lot or a newer building.

Want to know the secret to becoming a magician? Learn some local history!

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