Some people are natural storytellers. You can’t help but smile when they are speaking, sharing stories from their past or just spinning yarn. Folks like this are often rooted where they grew up, knowledgeable in local history and the old ways. They are invaluable sources and have often never imagined that people would be interested in what they have to say. Oral history and the love of primary sources for researchers have proved otherwise.
Most of the people I meet who are native to rural North Carolina, I meet through my work on the Overhills project, whether during interviews or meetings relating to Overhills. Johnny is one of the people whom I have met. Johnny grew up in the Harnett County – Cumberland County areas of North Carolina and knew Overhills for his entire life. He and his brother worked on Overhills and Long Valley Farm and loved it dearly. He still takes care of Long Valley Farm, which is going to become part of the North Carolina State Parks.
Johnny is a true storyteller. He is a delight to be around and hear. Johnny can talk for hours about the old ways of tobacco farming. He states that he is not an expert, though he does know a lot because his Daddy was a tobacco farmer. In the fall and spring, Johnny still slaughters his own pigs and makes sausage and bacon and pork. People drive by his house and stop to take pictures and ask about what he is doing because their grandparents used to do that.
Clearly he is a sponge of information and a fountain of knowledge; I think I could talk to Johnny for days and never get tired of listening. I can imagine walking tobacco fields and listening to him teach about farming and telling stories of local history. He is animated, as nice as can be, a true Southerner, and down to earth. I do think his carefree attitude and smile is contagious. I hope everyone knows someone like Johnny, whether as a friend or as a resource.
I find inspiration in unexpected places and become reinvigorated by random people. Johnny reminded how important my work is to so many people who loved Overhills dearly. Sometimes we underestimate the value of people as research resources, often favoring an actual document over someone’s spoken words. However, what we forget is that a newspaper article was written by a human being just as fallible as the rest of us. Personally, I tend to trust the spoken word over a historic newspaper article. Comparing historic documents such as bills, telegrams, letters, receipt, etc. to newspaper articles, I have found many inaccurate statements in the articles. If my colleague and I weren’t searching through the Overhills documents, a future researcher could very well believe the inaccurate article over the primary documents. Hopefully our end report and project will correct any misconceptions.
Of course, the stories that people tell could just be stories mixed with fact and fiction. But for all of the otherwise-unknown details that living storytellers provide, from building locations to personal anecdotes and characteristics, to stories about those who have passed, to former road names and lessons about the old ways of occupations, the few inaccuracies are well worth the trouble and confusion. If we are only to rely on research and the “facts” via documented history, then we will find ourselves with an unfortunate gap in history.
People like Johnny help me to remember the importance of community connections and the value of reaching out to find history in unlikely places. And it’s even more fun when they are natural, entertaining storytellers. Don’t always take the word of a newspaper article. And make sure to listen to and really hear people like Johnny.