From documentarian Ken Burns to local history buffs, Hunter Library is becoming a valuable resource

For George Frizzell ’77 MA’81, who grew up in Jackson County near the WCU campus, history close to home has become his life’s work. As the head of Special Collections at Hunter Library, Frizzell oversees the collection and preservation of an abundance of rare and unique materials that provide researchers with a realm of possibilities. After 27 years, it’s a job he continues to enjoy.

George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81 shows off some of the artifacts preserved in Hunter Library’s Special Collections.George Frizzell ’77 MA ’81 shows off some of the artifacts
preserved in Hunter Library’s Special Collections.

“History and literature are great connectors that bring people together. Regardless of where you were born or grew up, you can develop great appreciation for a region,” he said.

Even after all this time, it is still exciting to see people coming up with new and innovative questions and topics.”

The collections focus on a variety of areas, notably the cultural and natural history of Southern Appalachia, Cherokee Indian history and culture, literary works of authors associated with the region, and – of course – the history of WCU. Among the treasures are family papers, organizational records, photographs, postcards, books and ephemeral publications.

University students, faculty members, historians, literary authors, genealogists and local residents are finding out about and using the rare and unique materials on the library’s second floor. Producers for the recent Ken Burns documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” traveled to WCU to see the library’s historical photographs of mountain life and the environment, choosing several that appeared in the Great Smoky Mountains segment of the PBS special. A selection from Special Collections of the work of George Masa, who captured mountain scenes from the early 1900s in beautiful photographs, was exhibited last fall at the WCU Fine Art Museum. Ron Rash, Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Culture, is among a growing list of authors of historical fiction who have consulted Frizzell and used the library’s resources. “George’s generous sharing of knowledge was crucial as I did research for my novel ‘Serena,’” Rash said. Scholar Elizabeth Coonrod Martínez used documents from the library in her 2007 biography of Josefina Niggli, WCU theater instructor and Mexican-American author. (See related story on Page 12)

The increased interest in Special Collections pleases Frizzell and his assistant, Jason Brady ’99, who want to spread the word about the historical resources available to the public, both in the collection’s reading room and online. In recent years, an expanding presence online has brought the collections to the attention of a wider audience. Digital collections feature an exhibit on the life and work of Horace Kephart, an author and former librarian who moved to Western North Carolina and helped establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park; the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper, printed in the Cherokee language and in English; letters from the Civil War period; photographs of area schools; and a historical travel component of the library’s Craft Revival Web site, a digital history of a movement that started in the late 1900s to revive handcraft among the mountain people.

“Ultimately, we are hoping to help preserve the collective memory of the region,” said Frizzell. “We could not do this without the generosity of those who have contributed materials to the collection and the interest of the people who use them in their research.”