The North Carolina Room at the Morganton Public Library is putting the pieces of Burke County history together in photographs.
Laurie Johnston, curator of the NC Room, and her team of volunteers, just scanned the 5,000th photo into Picture Burke, a digital collection of historic photographs showing what life was like in Burke County throughout most of the 20th century.
The photographs, donated over the years by local residents and businesses, were scanned by the Picture Burke team to share with the community and preserve for future generations.
“People are fascinated by historical photos,” Johnston said. “We have a lot of history here in Morganton and Burke County, and I think there are so many people in the county who appreciate and value history.”
Preserving with purpose
Johnston said the project began in the fall of 2001, spearheaded by Gale Benfield, former curator of the NC Room.
Local resident Dottie Ervin has been volunteering in the North Carolina Room for more than 20 years, and has been involved with the Picture Burke project from its beginning.
“People had given photographs to the North Carolina Room, and we just dumped them in a box,” Ervin said. “I remember one day we were looking at them, and Gale threw one down on the table and said, ‘Nobody’s going to know who this is,’ and I said, ‘Yes, somebody is going to know who that is – that’s my granddaddy sitting on his front porch.”
Benfield formed a Picture Burke committee with former library director Steve Farlow, current director Jim Wilson, and former library employees Becky Stragand and Greg Poe. The committee partnered with local organizations and businesses, who donated more photographs and provided volunteers and funds to purchase equipment.
“Many individuals within these organizations helped to plan, research, locate photographs and secure resources to get Picture Burke underway,” Johnston said. “The name ‘Picture Burke’ was suggested by Greer Suttlemyre, a local historian.”
The committee also received grants from the State Library of North Carolina, the Burke County Historical Society, the Grace Episcopal Church Foundation, Historic Burke Foundation, the Mull Foundation, and the Burke County Genealogical Society. Additional funding from the Beatrice Cobb Trust and the Library Foundation of Burke County provides suppliesfor ongoing storage, maintenance and sharing of the collection.
The first photograph scanned into the Picture Burke collection, an image of downtown Morganton showing the intersection of Union and Sterlings treets in the early 1920s, was contributed by Nancy Hill Davis and scanned on Sept. 17, 2002.
Volunteers, including Al DeVinney, Wayne Hitt Sandra West and Ervin, worked with Benfield five days a week in the beginning, scanning the many photographs and processing data to catalog the collection. Ervin and Hitt still help out with the project today.
Early photographs scanned include historic homes and structures, old Burke hotels and resorts, scenes of downtown Morganton and Glen Alpine, construction of the Lake James dam, images from the floods of 1916 and 1940 and images from the early history of the North Carolina School for the Deaf and Broughton Hospital, according to Johnston. Many photographs were taken by local professional photographers, such as F.W. Tyler, L.E. Webb, and Walt Greene.
“The growth of Picture Burke would not have been possible without the generous contributions of images provided by local individuals and groups through the years,” Johnston said. “At the time Picture Burke began, there was no general history museum in Burke County, so people seemed eager to contribute photographs to document and preserve history for local citizens. R. Douglas Walker Jr. gave Picture Burke a running start by providing more than 220 images to the collection. In addition, R.M. Lineberger’s collection of more than 300 photographs that had been donated to Historic Burke Foundation were scanned and added to Picture Burke.
“When The History Museum of Burke County became a reality in 2003, it became a major contributor of photographs to Picture Burke and vice versa. By 2004, Picture Burke included more than 1,300 images that had been scanned, identified and cataloged.”
Focusing on the future
Johnston said she would like expand the Picture Burke project to include more recent history. She also would like to scan more photos from areas outside of Morganton, such as Drexel, Glen Alpine, George Hildebrand, Jonas Ridge, Hildebran and Valdese. One of her goals is to obtain grant funds to purchase a portable scanner she can take on the road to make it easier for area residents to have photos scanned.
“We’re proud of what Picture Burke has become,” Johnston said. “We’d like for it to continue to grow. We want to continue to involve more of the community and share these photos with the community as much as possible. These pictures can evoke memories and instill a sense of nostalgia among viewers, connecting people to their own history or the history of their families, even connecting people across generations.”
“I have often said that if we don’t do this important work of preserving our local history, who will? Picture Burke is not only one of the most rewarding, but also one of the most important things I do at the library. The legacy of Picture Burke is that it provides a visual record of our local history for ourselves and for future generations and connects us to our shared history. I feel privileged to be involved in the process of recording our past and present for future generations through Picture Burke.”
'This is us'
Johnston has made a concerted effort to share Picture Burke with the community by collaborating with local groups to prepare exhibits and slideshow presentations of the photographs.
The city of Morganton hosted two of the exhibits, “Morganton - Then and Now” and “Downtown Yesteryear,” for its “Art in the Hall” series. Several photographs were enlarged to poster-size for a display for the North Carolina Main Street Conference held in Morganton in 2015.
Photographs of the flood of 1916 in Burke County were displayed at the library as part of a traveling exhibit produced by the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources in 2016 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great flood that devastated western North Carolina.
Picture Burke cooperated with the Waldensian Heritage Museum in Valdese last fall to scan more than 150 photographs from Valdese history to produce a 20-minute slideshow to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the town of Valdese. The photos were shown at the Edict of Emancipation Celebration at the Old Rock School in Valdese in February and will be displayed in the Waldensian Heritage Museum throughout the year .
Picture Burke slideshows also have been created for the Historic Burke Foundation, Burke County Genealogical Society, Morganton Garden Club, Burke County Historical Society, Daughters of the American Revolution and Burke County Government employees.
Local businesses who display Picture Burke prints include Ingles, Kirksey Funeral Home, Applebee’s and Food Matters Market. Eleven images on permanent display in the newly built C.B. Hildebrand Public Library highlight the history of Hildebran and Henry River with photographs of the old Hildebran School, the town and the Henry River Mill Village.
The library began sharing photographs from Picture Burke with The News Herald in 2008 for readers to enjoy. A portion of the collection can be viewed online at www.morganton.com, as well as on the library’s website at www.bcpls.org. Picture Burke photos have been featured in a calendar insert to The News Herald in recent years.
The library does not distribute digital copies of the photos, but people can purchase individual Picture Burke prints from the library for $10 for an 8-by-10 print, or $5 for a 5-by-7 print.
“We print it on photo-quality black and white paper, and it comes with a mat,” Johnston said.
Johnston shared a story about local resident Cathy Abernathy, who made a family connection through Picture Burke.
Abernathy recently requested a copy of a Picture Burke photo she saw in the photo gallery on The News Herald website, which depicted her grandparents participating in a War Bond parade in Morganton in September of 1942. Her grandparents received an award because they had four sons serving in the military in World War II at the time.
“She was so excited to see the photo, because very few photographs exist of her grandparents, due to a fire many years ago in her grandparents' home,” Johnston said.
After tracking down that photograph, Johnston found another photograph from the same parade that showed the mayor of Morganton pinning a special pin on her grandmother, acknowledging her contribution to the war effort.
“I was able to print 5-by-7 photographs for her to share with her cousins so they could all have copies of these two photos, along with the information we knew about the photographs,” Johnston said. “The photographs were contributed years ago by Susan Fitz McAninch. There are many instances, such as this one, when we've been able to supply photographs for families. It is such a pleasure to be able to share the photographs in Picture Burke.”
The 5,000 photo
Feb. 18, 1960, is a day Wayne Hitt will always remember.
Hitt, a volunteer with the Picture Burke project, was 25 years old at the time and working as an assistant for photographer Carl Webb of Webb Studio in Morganton.
Members of a work crew painting a stand-pipe - style water tower that stood on the 600 block of West Union Street came to the studio and asked Webb to take photos of them on top of the tower. Webb decided he didn’t want to climb the 110-foot tower, so he sent Hitt on the assignment.
“I climbed up the little, narrow ladder with one of the workmen behind me, and they pulled the cameras up in a bucket,” Hitt said. “My father worked in maintenance at Drexel, and he climbed water towers all the time, and I thought, well if he could do it, why not me?”
Hitt used the opportunity to take panoramic shots of Morganton, including a photo that was recently scanned as the 5,000 Picture Burke photo. The photo features the construction of First Presbyterian Church, with the Great Lakes Carbon Plant in the background.
“It was spectacular,” Hitt said of the views from the top of the tower. “You could see the mountains and all of the town. It was just wonderful.”
The pictures were published with an article about the event in The News Herald at the time.
Hitt held onto the photos, not knowing that they would eventually become part of local history.
“I helped a lot in the early days of Picture Burke, so I feel like it’s an honor to have the 5,000th picture,” he said.
For more information about Picture Burke or to purchase prints, contact Johnston at 828-764-9266.