North Carolina Collection University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill It may seem presumptuous — if not downright preposterous — to refer to a repository of all things North
It may seem presumptuous — if not downright preposterous — to refer to a repository of all things North Carolina as “the” North Carolina Collection, as if there were no other collection of North Caroliniana that mattered.
Clearly, other collections do matter, but probably none so much as this one — yes, the North Carolina Collection — which is believed to be the largest library collection in the country devoted to a single state. The collection, housed in the Wilson Library Special Collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, contains more than four million photographs alone, not to mention more than 300,000 books, pamphlets, documents, microforms, maps, postcards, and so much more, all of them somehow connected to North Carolina.
Perhaps you’d like to explore the mammoth photo collection of beloved North Carolinian Hugh Morton, who not only founded Grandfather Mountain but was also an accomplished photographer who captured some grand moments in the state’s colorful history.
Or maybe you’d like to see the Durant Bible, the book believed to have been in North Carolina longer than any other — since the 1660s.
“It’s a small personal Bible,” says Robert “Bob” Anthony, curator of the collection for 27 years before retiring in May. “The chancellors have used it, and Gov. Pat McCrory used it for his installation ceremony. It’s symbolically very important, because it represents the introduction of the written word into North Carolina.”
If you’re drawn to famous names, the collection has you covered with its memorabilia associated with such North Carolina natives as Billy Graham, Andy Griffith, Thomas Wolfe, Ava Gardner, and Dolley Madison, to name a few.
The origins of the North Carolina Collection can be traced to 1844, when UNC president David Lowry Swain founded the North Carolina Historical Society and began collecting books, pamphlets, documents, and newspapers from across the state.
“North Carolina had been known as ‘The Rip Van Winkle State,’” Anthony explains, “and Swain was convinced that if Carolinians knew more about their history, they would take pride in developing the state.”
Swain initially stored the items in his office, but they eventually evolved into a formal collection known as the North Carolina Collection. The collection’s first curator, Mary Lindsay Thornton, was hired in 1917.
“The goal is to collect and make available on-site these resources for anyone interested in the materials,” Anthony says. “You don’t have to be a UNC student — they’re available to anyone from the general public. We’re here to be the palace of record for published North Caroliniana.” (Parts of the collection are being digitized so that people can access them through the university’s library website.)
It would be impossible to list everything you can find in the North Carolina Collection: Slave narratives. City directories. School yearbooks. Political memorabilia. Historic artifacts, from the bronze plate for the cornerstone of Old East — the first building on UNC’s campus — to the watch worn by geologist Elisha Mitchell, who confirmed that Mount Mitchell is the highest peak on the East Coast, when he fell to his death in 1857. The lore is that the watch broke when Mitchell fell, and thus shows the exact time of his death.
Want to know what time he died?
The North Carolina Collection can provide the answer — and millions of others — whenever you’re ready.
There’s no fancy backstory to the origin of the annual Ederville Train and Tractor Show in Carthage. “My husband bought a tractor,” Patti Eder explains with a chuckle.
Then her husband, Ken, bought another. And another. Then he bought a steam engine, and before the couple knew it, the collection had become, well, a runaway train.
This year’s show, November 5-7, will be the 16th annual event, with more than 10,000 visitors expected to come see the seemingly endless displays of old tractors and antique steam engines, some dating as far back as the 1800s. Many of the names are familiar — John Deere, Caterpillar, International, and Stanley Steamer, for example — but the collection even includes machinery from overseas.
Nostalgia buffs will enjoy Ederville’s other collectible displays — from antique dolls and women’s clothing to a vintage telephone switchboard — but the machinery steals the show.
“I especially enjoy seeing older people remember when they worked on a farm with their father or grandfather,” Patti says, “or seeing young kids amazed at how big these things are. The enjoyment I get is watching others enjoy it.”
Unfortunately, Ken died in 2018, but his legacy continues full steam ahead.
Steven Burke and Randy Campbell may collect small buildings, but there’s nothing else small about their unique slice of Americana.
“Our collection of American folk art buildings is the nation’s largest and only such,” Burke says matter-of-factly.
That’s a bold claim, but it’s not bragging if you can back it up. And with their assembled community of miniature buildings now numbering close to 1,300, these two can back it up. About two-thirds of the buildings are on display in their Hillsborough home — and in two smaller structures on their property, built specifically to showcase the collection — while the rest remain in storage.
Handcrafted by individuals rather than mass-produced, the scaled-down structures represent the buildings found in American communities, from charming houses and stately churches to storefronts, gas stations, and factories. Others, though, represent well-known, specifically identifiable buildings: The U.S. Capitol. George Washington’s Mount Vernon home. Buildings in North Carolina’s Old Salem Historic District.
The collection began in 1985, when Burke spied a small building on a shelf in an antiques shop and couldn’t resist. Thirty-six years and more than 1,000 buildings later, he still finds it hard to resist, but he’s learning.
“Even a berserk, passionate collector like I am needs to have some restraint,” he says.
Half a century after he began collecting memorabilia related to Statesville, his beloved hometown, Steve Hill sheepishly admits, “At some point, things got out of hand.”
Not that that’s a bad thing. Hill’s massive menagerie of memorabilia, the Statesville Historical Collection, is a museum-size scrapbook of life in Statesville and Iredell County, from the approximately half a million vintage photographs he’s amassed — half a million! — to the countless artifacts that offer telling glimpses into the city’s past.
The collection abounds with remnants of the three products that propelled the city’s growth in the late 1800s — tobacco, liquor, and medicinal roots and herbs, including what was once believed to be the largest herbarium in the world. Other exhibits pay homage to famous folks who once called Statesville home — from professional athletes to successful authors to NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn — and to the numerous movies filmed there.
Hill began collecting “Statesvilliana” as a teenager, and he never quit.
“The basis for the whole thing has been this sense of pride in my community,” he says. “We have a fascinating town, a fascinating history, and it’s a story that needs to be shared.”
When Vicky Wall began collecting seashells as a little girl, they were just seashells in a small basket.
Now, though, the 62-year-old Mayodan woman’s shell game has evolved dramatically. She figures she has a couple thousand seashells of every shape and color — all of them meticulously cleaned and cataloged — with exotic names like whelks, conchs, hairy tritons, and wentletraps. They range in size from the tiny keyhole limpet (about a quarter-inch long) to the left-handed whelk (12 inches).
Also among Wall’s favorites is the Scotch bonnet, North Carolina’s state seashell — a distinction initiated in 1965 by the North Carolina Shell Club, to which she belongs.
Wall got serious about collecting in the early 1980s, after her parents bought a condo on Topsail Island, giving her unfettered access to the Carolina coast and its shelling riches. North Topsail, Portsmouth Island, and Shackleford Banks have been especially generous to her, she says, and the best times to hunt are at low tide or immediately after a strong nor’easter.
“I really enjoy the discovery aspect of it,” Wall says. “You never know what you’re going to find walking the beach.”
Kroghie Andresen grew up hunting waterfowl in eastern North Carolina, but it was actually his wife who got him interested in hunting the waterfowl he’s best known for: duck decoys.
Andresen, who now lives in Charlotte, once owned upward of 1,300 hand-carved wooden decoys, before whittling his collection back to about a thousand now, most of them made by carvers from North Carolina and Back Bay, Virginia, and almost all of them carved prior to 1950.
And the entire obsession — er, collection — can be traced back to a single decoy bought by Andresen’s wife in 1979 to decorate their new home. Andresen says it was actually “kinda ugly,” but it was enough to spark his interest. He returned that decoy and started buying ones that were more to his liking — ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds — and once he started, he couldn’t stop.
“I guess it’s just kind of in my DNA to collect them,” Andresen says.
Two nationally acclaimed North Carolina carvers in particular — Lee Dudley and James Best — top Andresen’s list of favorites. He’s even written four books on North Carolina decoys, and was able to draw from his own flock for the illustrations.
It’s been nearly half a century since Rodney H. Leftwich discovered the regional folk pottery traditions of western North Carolina, but his passion for the art remains as enduring as the deep-rooted tradition itself.
Leftwich, who lives in Mills River, launched what would evolve into an 1,100-piece collection of antique western North Carolina pottery, beginning with a piece created in the 1870s. The collection included crocks, churns, and other utilitarian pieces, and early face jugs, but he also developed an affinity for the lesser-known art pottery style, recognized for its artistic flair.
A number of years ago, Leftwich downsized his collection to about 300 pots — “my favorite pieces,” he says — but he didn’t downsize his enthusiasm.
Leftwich, who also makes his own pottery, especially favors the work of the late Walter Stephen, who founded Pisgah Forest Pottery near Asheville in the early 1920s. Stephen became known for discovering new, previously unknown glazes and colors, and for incorporating decorative folk-life drawings into his pieces.
For Leftwich, the joy of collecting pottery is a never-ending one.
“What I have loved about collecting has not been the pottery,” he says, “but the hunt.”
Mark Ridenhour jokes that his mom put Cheerwine in his baby bottle.
Which is comical, of course, until you catch a glimpse of the Cheerwine shrine — er, “home office” — at Ridenhour’s house in Mooresville, spilling over with so much Cheerwine memorabilia that you wonder if he is, in fact, joking about the baby bottle.
“It’s pretty much an obsession,” says Ridenhour, who grew up in Salisbury, birthplace of the beloved soft drink. “I collect any and all things Cheerwine.”
His collection ranges from small items like Cheerwine bottle caps, bottle openers, and refrigerator magnets to large signs and even the hood of the former Cheerwine racecar of NASCAR fame.
Ridenhour has all shapes and sizes of Cheerwine bottles, including a few examples of what he calls the Holy Grail, the “cherries bottle” — it’s adorned with an image of three cherries — which was produced only in 1917, the company’s first year of existence.
There’s much more: Shirts and hats. Watches and clocks. Vending machine inserts. Serving trays. An empty carton of Cheerwine Swirl ice cream. Even a three-foot-tall Santa wearing a Cheerwine belt buckle. And, of course, the circa-1930s Cheerwine outdoor thermometer that launched Ridenhour’s obsession more than 25 years ago.
“It’s kind of crazy,” he says. “I’ve always loved the drink itself, but now I have this appreciation for its history, too.”
Editor’s Note: Mark Ridenhour, aka “Mr. Cheerwine,” passed away on December 17, 2021.