Bubbly archivist is in charge of goldmines of local history
Story and photos by Naomi Johnson
If you think history is boring, spend an hour on the breezy, third-floor screened porch at the new WNC Regional Archives talking with Heather South, the ebullient new archivist, and you just might change your tune. “I’m a history geek and proud!” says South, with a measure of sass you might not associate with the word “archivist.”
“People hear archive, they think dusty, musty, tucked away somewhere. But documents can be very powerful. I’ve seen people cry when they find that one document with their ancestor’s signature on it. Our mission is to safeguard that material, preserve it, and make it accessible.”
Located in a freshly restored vintage building on the campus of the Charles George VA Medical Center in Oteen, the Archives will serve as a local home for regionally relevant documents and artifacts that you used to have to drive all the way to Raleigh to view. These include major collections on Black Mountain College, the construction of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and the Appalachian National Park Association, an early precursor to the National Park Service.
Open for less than a month, it has already fielded inquiries from as far away as Australia and Germany; right now it is playing host to a French researcher putting together a Paris exhibition on Black Mountain College. “She’s out at Lake Eden right now,” says South. “She rented a cabin out there so she can ‘commune with the spirits.’”
And that’s the sort of immersive research experience that the new Archives will make possible, according to South. Now when you’re researching your thesis on the harrowing early construction methods used to build tunnels on the Parkway, it will be easy to go look at the real thing at the same time. As an atmospheric bonus, the Archive itself backs up to the Parkway property — bears in the backyard are not uncommon — and is part of the VA Medical Center historic district, which means a view of everybody’s favorite spooky abandoned building, the yet-to-be-restored nurses’ dorm next door, its crumbling plaster draped in Virginia creeper.
For South, who got her start in York County, South Carolina, earning Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in history at Winthrop University and going on to work in that state’s archives in Columbia, all this is new. She didn’t know much about WNC when she moved here (“Black Mountain College?” she says with an exaggerated shrug), but she’s fallen in love with the area, and now says, “It was absolutely meant to be.”
She’s spent much of her time since moving here getting to know the various other history collections already in place, including at local colleges and universities, Asheville Art Museum and the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, and Pack Library’s North Carolina Collection. She hopes to function as a central clearinghouse for information, so that “if we don’t have it, we can tell you who does.”
For now, South is a one-woman shop, which keeps her busy with duties ranging from processing donated materials to supervising volunteers to fielding inquiries. She welcomes volunteer help, though she cautions, “It can be physically dirty and tedious. Removing staples from 600 boxes of materials is not glamorous.” One project she has in mind is a search for materials pertaining to the Archives’ own building, which used to be home to minority VA nurses: she’d love to have the stories of some of the former residents on display in the hallways. And of course she invites the public — to research, to browse, or just to wander the halls or linger on that fabulous screened porch, overlooking the tumbledown building next door. “Like I always say,” quips South, “it’s history with a view.”
The Western Regional Archives are located at 176 Riceville Road. Call 828-296-7230, ext. 240 or visit archives.ncdcr.gov/wra.htm