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[caption id="attachment_179946" align="alignright" width="300"] Mark Pace, the specialist at Richard H. Thornton Library’s North Carolina Room.[/caption] Mark Pace admits to being a pack rat. That’s why, when he got a

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[caption id="attachment_179946" align="alignright" width="300"] Mark Pace, the specialist at Richard H. Thornton Library’s North Carolina Room.[/caption] Mark Pace admits to being a pack rat. That’s why, when he got a

Finding Answers in the Archives

Francis B. Hays Collection at the Richard H. Thornton Library
Mark Pace at the North Carolina Room in the Richard H. Thornton Library

Mark Pace, the specialist at Richard H. Thornton Library’s North Carolina Room. photograph by Chris Rogers

Mark Pace admits to being a pack rat. That’s why, when he got a call from a woman in Stovall who had about 800 old editions of the Oxford Public Ledger stored in boxes in her barn, he jumped into his Camry to pick them up. The elements had damaged the newspapers, causing them to smell so bad that he had to drive back with his head sticking out the window.

Once he got the papers to the North Carolina Room, a space dedicated to local and regional history at the Richard H. Thornton Library in Oxford, he sorted through them and had them transferred to microfilm. The editions partially covered a period between 1947 and 1968 from which most record copies of the newspaper had been lost — a gap in history that Pace has been trying to fill.

Table in the North Carolina Room with books: The North Carolina Gazetteer and others.

The North Carolina Room contains books and resources on local history. photograph by Chris Rogers

As the library’s North Carolina Room specialist, filling in historical gaps — and helping others do so with their family histories — is what Pace does best. He collects records related to Granville County and surrounding areas, and when people come looking for clues to the past, he guides them in their searches.

In a given month, the North Carolina Room welcomes 300 to 350 people, about 60 percent of whom come to research their genealogy. Others come looking for information about local history or to bring Pace artifacts. Many visitors live locally or regionally, but Pace has had people come from as far away as New York, Washington State, even London, who trace their roots back to Granville County. After researching as far back as they can online, people often reach a point where they need to look through physical documents. Many of the records that reveal their families’ stories can only be found here, in the North Carolina Room.

• • •

Granville County is one of the state’s “mother counties” — along with Bladen, Rowan, and others — meaning that several smaller counties were formed from what Pace calls “old Granville County.” This county was formed from Edgecombe County in 1746. In 1752, a portion broke off to form the part of Orange County that is now Person County. Bute County split off in 1764, and was later divided into Franklin County, named for Benjamin Franklin, and Warren County, named for patriot Joseph Warren. In 1881, Vance County was formed from parts of Granville, Franklin, and Warren counties when Henderson took off as a tobacco town with a railroad line.

As a result, the genealogies of families from a large region of the state can be traced to Granville County. For this reason, Pace also maintains historical information on the counties that broke off from old Granville County, as well as a large section of documents about Virginia. He explains that the majority of people who settled in this area prior to the Civil War migrated from Virginia when the early colonies there became too crowded.

Richard H. Thornton Library in Oxford, NC

Richard H. Thornton Library. photograph by Chris Rogers

When someone comes to the North Carolina Room to research their genealogy, Pace always starts by asking them who their grandparents were. He can look up the grandparents’ death certificates or marriage records, which often list who their parents were. From there, they can keep looking backward. But after doing genealogical research for nearly half a century — first for himself, then later at the library for others — Pace is familiar with local names. Upon hearing a last name, he can often tell a person if their family is from Warrenton or Williamsboro. Bullock, for example, comes from northern Granville County or Creedmoor, Pace says. Hawkins comes from Middleburg; Perry comes from Franklin County.

Pace first got interested in history and genealogy as a kid growing up in Henderson. His grandmother would recount stories told to her by her grandfather, a veteran of the Civil War. She would also tell stories about growing up before electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, and automobiles. The adults would run Pace out of the room, telling him to go play. But he wasn’t interested in playing baseball with his cousins. He’d sit outside the door, eavesdropping as his grandmother wistfully reminisced about her childhood.

As he got older, Pace started researching genealogy and interviewing his elders. As a history major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he would skip class to go to the library and hunt down genealogical information. After college, he worked in advertising as an illustrator, but continued his historical research on weekends.

One day, after 25 years in advertising, he stopped into the North Carolina Room at the Richard H. Thornton Library. He hadn’t been there in about five years, but it just so happened that the woman who worked in the room was retiring. On a whim, Pace applied. He began his new career in 2009. Later, he moved from Raleigh to Oxford. He feels more comfortable in a small town, he says. Plus, the small-town atmosphere has its benefits when it comes to doing local research. “Somebody will ask me a question like, ‘What year did the Colonial Store that was downtown catch on fire?’” he says. “Well, I could look through the newspapers and find out. But I could just call up Dr. Taylor; he was in the fire department back then. He’ll say, ‘That was in 1952. I remember that fire.’”

Rev. Cameron Currin combs through the archives and books at the North Carolina Room. find answers to their history and genealogy questions.

North Carolina Room Specialist Mark Pace helps library guests like the Rev. Cameron Currin — a research regular — find answers to their history and genealogy questions. photograph by Chris Rogers

When a phone call just won’t cut it, Pace has a room full of documents to research local and family history. He looks at courthouse records — wills, deeds, marriage records, court minutes. There are also diaries, store ledgers, newspaper accounts. Records like these can place a family member in a certain area at a certain time. But they are also clues to people’s personalities.

For instance, Pace had always heard that his great-great-grandfather Benjamin Franklin Ayscue was a hypochondriac. He was able to find a newspaper ad that included a testimonial from Ayscue about a medicine that cured his stomach ailments, headaches, and foot pain. “I thought, Well, good Lord — he was a hypochondriac,” Pace says. “Either that or he had a whole multiplicity of health problems. But you learn subtle things about people like that.”

What other kinds of records does Pace keep? Just about anything he can get his hands on.

He keeps hand-drawn family trees that are too large to put online, like one that traces local Hargroves all the way back to their ancestor Col. Joseph Taylor in England. Pace says that people come from all over the country to look at the charts.

The oldest known map of Granville County, hand-drawn in 1868.

The oldest known map of Granville County, hand-drawn in 1868. photograph by Chris Rogers

He’s got a copy of a hand-drawn map of Granville County in French dated January 1943, noting “La Crique de Herbe” — Grassy Creek — and “La Chapelle de Davis” — Davis Chapel. Best he can figure, it was used to introduce French to soldiers at Camp Butner, a World War II-era Army training camp in Granville County, who were preparing for D-Day.

Pace flips through a book of library card applications from the 1960s. Starting in 1964, the letter N begins showing up to the left of patrons’ names. “I was looking at it one day, and then it dawned on me what N stood for,” he says. “I thought that told the story of segregation in a tangible way.”

Page from the Walker Family Bible, housed within the North Carolina Room

The library’s oldest book is the Walker Family Bible, which dates to 1772 and lists family birth dates. photograph by Chris Rogers

Pace opens a tattered brown book, its front cover falling off. The handwritten note inside indicates that Lewis Taylor bought the book on February 17, 1790. On the yellowed front pages, the birth dates and parentage of enslaved people are written in neat cursive. “The only record that this person ever existed on Earth is right here,” he says. Picking up a corner that has fallen off a page, he adds, “Look, this is how fragile history is.”

Pace is particularly proud of the Francis B. Hays Collection. Hays lived from 1867 until 1959 and kept extensive scrapbooks of newspaper articles, organized by subject — weather, tobacco, automobile accidents. If someone comes in looking for the date that their grandparents were married, Pace can often find that information in Hays’s marriage scrapbook. “It’s kind of the Internet of his day,” Pace says.

He excitedly leafs through a scrapbook that contains copies of artwork depicting buildings in downtown Oxford during the early 1900s. Once, a man came in asking about his grandfather’s store. The only detail he could remember was that it had a sign out front with a large elephant on it. Pace was able to find the painting of the business in the book.

Drawing of Hillsborough Street from J. B. Carroll's sketchbook, housed within the North Carolina Room.

A sketchbook by J. B. Carroll includes a drawing of early Hillsborough Street. photograph by Chris Rogers

As he pulls out artifacts, folks stop by to chat. A couple walks in with an old, shallow basket, woven with wide strips of wicker. The man explains that it was for holding tobacco leaves that he would sweep off the floor and later sell for $1.86 a pound. After the couple leaves, Pace shares a bit of local trivia — that a writer for The Andy Griffith Show was from Oxford. “If Oxford is Mayberry, the library is Floyd’s Barbershop,” he says with a grin. “Someone comes in here with a question about every five minutes.”

Sometimes, those questions are deeply meaningful. A man came in a couple of years ago who was terminally ill with cancer. He wanted to find out where his ancestors were buried. He and Pace did some research, found out the church where they were buried, and drove out there together. The man could barely walk, but Pace helped him get to the graves. Upon seeing the stones, the man cried, saying, “Well, I guess I can pass on in peace. I’ve got that question answered.”

• • •

Pace thinks that it’s more important than ever for folks to research their genealogy. In the past, families lived in the same place for generation after generation. Now, people move so much that the continuity is lost.

Likewise, as Granville County has grown and developed, the culture has changed from a community of tobacco growers to a more economically and socially diverse region. “There’s not as much singularity of place anymore,” he says. “So it’s important that we preserve what we’ve got.”

Pace plans to continue filling in the blanks, both in the North Carolina Room’s archives and for the people who walk through the door, looking for answers. At 63, he has no plans to retire. “We’ve got to race against time,” he says. “We’ve got to interview these old people and listen to their stories. We’ve got to save these records and save these books and save these family Bibles and save these receipts. Because a little bit is lost each day.”

And if you ask Pace, everything is a keepsake.

Richard H. Thornton Library
210 Main Street
Oxford, NC 27565
(919) 693-1121

This story was published on Feb 26, 2024

Rebecca Woltz

Rebecca is the staff writer at Our State.