'Preserve what we still have': Surgoinsville library basement to be converted into archive, museum

Jeff Bobo • Aug 9, 2018 at 3:24 PM

SURGOINSVILLE — It doesn’t look like much now, but a group of Surgoinsville residents have high hopes for the basement of their public library, which they plan on converting into a historical museum and archive.

About a dozen people showed up at the Surgoinsville First United Methodist Church Tuesday evening for the proposed museum committee’s first organizational meeting.

They made four major decisions, the first of which was to appoint former Mayor Johnny Greer as committee chairman.

The Surgoinsville Area Archive and Museum

Organizers also agreed to give their new creation a name: the Surgoinsville Area Archive and Museum, or SAAM for short.

They agreed to start gathering cost estimates for the work that will be needed on the library basement to make their new museum a reality.

And they will put the word out that they’re seeking donations or loans of any and all Surgoinsville historical memorabilia — anything dating from the founding of the community around 1815 up to the present.

Between Greer and SAAM co-founder (and former mayor) Jack Pierce, they’re already off to a good start with regard to artifacts.

Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Greer and Pierce met the Time News in the library basement where some of the items are already being stored.

What’s in the basement already?

Several items from the old mill on Longs Bend Road, including a set of scales, pulley wheels, grain chutes and a lot of photos, are already stored in the library basement.

There are also photos of buildings from the town’s history, as well as yearbooks, tobacco farming items, signs, paintings and illustrations, ledgers, posters and other miscellaneous items.

Greer has a 100-year-old “Sons of Hawkins County” hardcover book which contains the names and photos of every county resident who fought in World War I.

He also has the old East End Drive In menu board, as well as a vintage painting by local artist Jimmy Caswell of the eatery as it looked in 1964, depicting real people in the actual cars that frequented the business.

“Things like this I want away from my house and put where people can actually enjoy it and see it,” Greer said.

In search of historical artifacts

Greer, who also owns the Bellamy Hardware antique shop and live music venue on Main Street, has a lot of local historical memorabilia at the hardware store which he will bring out when the time is right.

He said there are several local residents who have items that will be donated or loaned to the new museum when it’s finished.

“It’s scattered all over the place and we don’t have anywhere to put it,” Greer said. “People want a safe place and to know it’s going to be taken care of before they give it up. They’ve got it at home. I’ve been told, ‘I’ve got this and I’ve got that,’ but with nowhere to put it, they’re not willing to let go of it.”

Turning a basement into a museum

The library basement is damp and unfinished. In fact, there is still a section of floor that hasn’t been poured yet because the original builder intended to install a restroom down there, but never did.

The top priority for the room is to install a heat pump and dehumidifier to control the temperature and moisture so that artifacts can be stored safely.

Organizers also need to build sidewalk access to the entrance, design the museum interior and acquire display cases.

But that heat pump, which has been estimated to cost about $5,000, will be the first big hurdle.

The Surgoinsville Medical Board, which has paid for the construction of several facilities in town over the past half-century, is expected to contribute some of the cost, but there will also have to be a massive fundraising effort.

More than just artifacts

Pierce is in the process of recording and/or reproducing more than 2,200 historic Surgoinsville documents on loan from a town native who now lives in Rogersville.

The owner wants them back eventually, but Pierce said he’s first going to try to duplicate them all for public viewing at the SAAM.

Those documents are “the history of Surgoinsville” and include deeds, land transfers and other papers dating back to the town’s beginnings.

“They tell the story, not only of Surgoinsville, but this whole area,” Pierce said. “Nearly all of those documents are in longhand. A few of them are typed. The problem is, I can read them, a lot of people can read them, but they’re torturous. What we need is to translate them and put them in print so that everybody can learn about it.”

Not an ordinary museum

Greer said he wants the SAAM to be a “living museum.” It’s going to have permanent displays, but it’s also going to be constantly changing, rotating in new exhibits that tell interesting stories about local residents past and present, and preserving recent history before it is lost.

“We want our archives to be a little different,” Greer said. “New history. Not just things from 200 years ago. There are a lot of people and stories in this town from the past 50 years that need to be told and preserved.”

Pierce added, “Surgoinsville has been around for over 200 years, but we’ve lost a lot of our history because when people passed away, their belongings were either sent away or destroyed. A lot of their stories were forgotten. That’s why we need to preserve what we still have, so they’ll be here for future generations to study and learn from.”

How can you help?

The SAAM committee is welcoming pledges for artifact donations or loans while the facility is being renovated, but what organizers really need now is funding. 

Anyone interested in making a contribution, either historical or monetary, can contact Greer at (423) 335-5718 or Pierce at (423) 361-3244.

The next committee meeting won’t be scheduled until various cost estimates have been acquired.


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