Overhills Revisited

Overhills will forever remain a beloved memory of mine and a peaceful bubble of a world in the rural sandhills of North Carolina. I may not have lived or visited Overhills during its life as an active hunting retreat or family retreat, but I had the honor and pleasure of working for the buildings and the people who inhabited and loved Overhills. There was  a point in time when I thought that there would never be a day when I did not think of Overhills; but, years have passed since my oral history work finished and it now seems like a dream, like another world. My thoughts on Overhills are spaced further apart, but no less meaningful. The place, the people, the project have helped to define who I am. (The oral history project report can be accessed and downloaded through Fort Bragg.)

Aside from the Overhills Oral History Project, the property was documented under the Historic American Landscape Survey for the Library of Congress as the Overhills Historic District. (Read the HALS report.)Many of the records have been digitized: photographs of Overhills, floor plans, landscape plans, historical research. Not everything is digitized yet, but it is enough to trigger memories as I browse through the collection. Take a look with me.

Nursery Road, one of the roads through Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-26. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills approach road to the Hill. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-15. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Overhills polo barn. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-16. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Croatan, a house at Overhills. Photograph credit: HALS NC-3-8. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

These pictures remind me of the drive to and through Overhills, walking the grounds through the long leaf pines, exploring and attempting to learn as much as I could about the layout and landscape, piecing together historical research & oral history, visiting the houses and barns and imagining Overhills in its heyday.

Sadly, today, Overhills continues to deteriorate and/or suffers from vandalism. It pains me to hear of another building that has caught fire or to come across current Overhills pictures scattered across the internet that show the state of the place. It is incredibly sad, amplified by the fact that I know the stories and the history and the people of Overhills. Eventually, I’ll stop randomly searching for Overhills photos on search engines.

However, the HALS photographs and documents, in addition to the oral history project products, allow the good memories to stay with me. So I continue to look through the documentation. I don’t want to forget anything I know about Overhills. I’m sure my reaction time to specific questions – probably those found in the Overhills archives – is delayed from a few years ago, but that’s okay. I remember the bigger pictures. While my preference is preservation and rehabilitation instead of mitigation, I understand the importance and strength of proper and creative documentation because of this project. No matter which memory strikes me, I am reminded of the significant and unique story of Overhills, and how much I love(d) it.


Other posts about Overhills: 3 Hours in the Life of an Oral Historian. Carolina Day. Another Day in the Field. My Ode to Oral History. Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea. Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated. Overhills Book Release. Johnny. Those Unknown Photograph Subjects. Why They Don’t Let Me Outside. Time Travel Wish. Voice as a Powerful Primary Source.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer

Today the New York Times ran the obituary of a woman named Kathleen Harriman Mortimer, the daughter of W. Averell Harriman.

Kathleen Harriman Mortimer, 1946. Source: NY Times February 21, 2011. Click for original source.

Kathleen Mortimer died at age 93 at her home in Arden, NY.  Throughout the course of her life she was journalist, a United States ambassador to Moscow, traveled with her father abroad to important political events such as the Yalta conference, among many other accomplishments.

The obituary caught my attention because of my association with Mrs. Mortimer from my days of Overhills Oral History research. The Harriman family had a cottage on Overhills property; Averell Harriman, along with Percy Rockefeller, were important figures in the 1910s and 1920s of Overhills history.  Kathleen and her sister visited Overhills when they were babies and toddlers. You can see a picture of Averell Harriman and his daughters on the Harriman Cottage porch on page 109 of the Overhills book (Arcadia Publishing, 2008).

I spoke with Kathleen Mortimer on the phone a few times throughout 2006-2009 about her brief time at Overhills. She sounded like a classy, interesting woman. At the time, I had no idea of her impressive life adventures. It was honor to speak with her. I extend my sympathies to the Harriman and Mortimer families on their loss of Kathleen.

The World of Interviews

During high school, I worked on the school newspaper every year.  My junior and senior years, I enrolled in the journalism class.  I loved everything about journalism and newspaper production: interviewing people, coming up with story ideas, writing, editing (or sometimes slashing), layout, proofreading, captions, terminology, teaching the younger students, and of course, the brand new, hot-off-the-press stack of newspapers.

In college, when I participated in the Veterans History Project through my folklore class, interviewing a subject came naturally to me. My professor told me that my experience in journalism had definitely given me a step-up over people who had never done such a thing. I loved this project. Of course, this foreshadowed my future in oral history.

Yet, despite the lessons I learned in journalism and folklore, the similarities, and the root of wanting to know the story, the fields are incredibly distinct and interviewing for journalism is an entirely different task than conducting an oral history interview.  [By journalism, I mean am referring to typical newspapers, which is not necessarily every facet of journalism].

Generally, news interviews are short and to the point. A news interviewer asks direct questions about what she needs to know.  There isn’t a need for a relationship and extended communication between the interviewer and the interviewee.  Contrarily, an oral history interview is extended, often hours and sometimes multiple meetings. Establishing trust is essential. Following the interview agenda is important, not entirely expected. Most people will address topics irrelevant to the researcher’s goals.  Open ended, but guided questions are the best type to ask. After the interview, according to oral history ethics, the interviewee has the opportunity to review the transcript and any product. The interviewee can retract statements. In journalism, the interviewee has no idea what will appear in the paper.

I make these statements based on my own experiences. Keep in mind, my journalism days are limited to high school and my oral history methods may vary slightly from those of others. But, I mention these basic, stark differences because on a few occasions, potential oral history interviewees have been very wary of the oral history project, or have even refused because they had been misquoted in news articles. Therefore, they no longer trust anyone who uses the word interview.

That’s a fair enough reason, and often people’s fears are soothed with further explanations of the project and the interview process (recording, transcribing, interviewee review).  Many people initially dislike the idea of the interview being recorded, until they fully understand the transcript and availability to review and have a final say.  It’s commonplace in oral history work.

However, the fact that so many people feel they have been misquoted in newspapers in disheartening.  Indeed, I know how they feel. When Jeff and I were interviewed for our book, Overhills, we had no idea what would be in the paper or what snippets would be used, since the reporter barely wrote down anything. I imagine it’s a skill to remember interviews without an audio recorder. As it turns out, the article was fine, but until we were able to read it, the fear of misquotation lingered.

Of course, I imagine people have been misquoted in oral history projects, sometimes accidentally. Transcriptionists may not understand every word and therefore, unknowingly invent entirely new phrases and statements. (Sometimes, this is quite hilarious).  Or a transcript (accuracy unknown) can be the only product used, and extracted passages are not what the interviewee originally said.

Both journalism and oral history have their benefits and disadvantages and the quality from each will depend on the person conducting the research. For instance, a simple, local news story does not require hours of interview time and transcription. A few questions are all that is necessary.  On the other hand, the history of a house or of a town cannot be answered in a few journalism style interviews. Depth is necessary and the human memory works best with time to recall the past.  One field cannot replace the other.

I’m grateful for my time in journalism and oral history, both of which I enjoy. There is great value in both, when done properly. I’d have to say that oral history is much harder and more rewarding than journalism, but of course, that’s to me, since I love history and almost forgotten stories.  Now, if only journalists and oral historians could develop different ways to say “interview”, because I haven’t met anyone scared away from interviews by oral history projects, only those scared away from interviews by newspapers.  

And, call me a creature of habit, but I always prefer to be the interviewer rather than the interviewee.  To me, it’s easier.


Time Travel Wish

Some days I really wish I could travel back in time. Today I wish I could travel to Overhills, North Carolina in the 1920s or 1930s. I want to be an observer for just a little while, to see the daily happenings, the people, the country club days. I cannot imagine 40,000 acres of open space and rural solitude, fox hunting, or wealthy New York business chatting by the fire. I can easily picture the steam engines pulling into the Overhills station and postal workers tossing mail bags off the train, and the endless miles of horseback riding trails, and the golf course. Mostly, I want to see the houses that have since been demolished (the Clubhouse and the Covert) and the elaborate Hunt Complex of dog kennels, horse stables, and an elaborate “Circus”.  If I could choose just one building to explore, it would be the Clubhouse.

Luckily, the oral history interviewees have wonderfully described their years at Overhills, hundreds of photographs help to tell their stories, and I have set foot on Overhills. But you know as well as I do, that with the setting altered since the 1930s, some pieces remain missing. I suppose that is why many of us found historic preservation and history: we love the eternal mysteries of places and enjoy the search to find answers, and then the challenge of adequately sharing the past with others.  It is a profession but it is also a hobby; we can’t help it.  Still, while the unknown is always fascinating, we cannot help but wish to see the true story for ourselves.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

This is not an Overhills horse, just a North Carolina horse. But when you imagine Overhills you should imagine horses leaning over fences like this one with the green pine trees and Carolina blue sky in the background.

I don’t own any photographs of Overhills for my own use [to post here], but if you are interested in Overhills, see the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources website or the Overhills book.  On the website there is a slideshow of Overhills photographs and a brief history. The oral history project will be completed in a few months and parts of it will be available for viewing on the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources site. (I’ll keep you posted).

To where do you wish you could time travel?

Overhills Author Event!


Join Jeff Irwin and me, Kaitlin O’Shea, for an “author event” at The Country Bookshop in Southern Pines this Thursday afternoon. We’re going to talk a bit about Overhills history, the book writing inspiration and process, answer questions, sign books, mingle, etc. The Country Bookshop is wonderful and we’re so excited to be a part of their Author Series this January.  There will be bookmarks, stickers, and snacks if that helps persuade you!

Click here to read an article from the Southern Pines newspaper, The Pilot, for a brief history of Overhills and information about the book. And click here to see the Best Selling books in the Sandhills.  (Check out Paperback Nonfiction to see Overhills at #1!)

Obviously, Jeff and I are very excited to talk to everyone about the book, which we believe has uniquely preserved Overhills.

Those Unknown Photograph Subjects…

Quite often in my Overhills research, I find myself desperately seeking historic photographs of people and buildings. While photography was not widespread in the early decades of the 20th century, I always have this feeling that there has to be a photograph in existence of what I need.  I had that feeling while Jeff and I worked on the Overhills book and as we continue to work on the oral history project: as soon as it goes to press and is available to the public, people will come crawling out of the woodwork with photographs. These won’t be just any photographs, but incredible, never-before-seen photographs. So far, that has not happened with the Overhills book, but it always seems like a possibility.

Currently, I’m searching for photographs of James Francis Jordan, of the Kent-Jordan Company who founded the Overhills Country Club. I have seen a photograph of him, but it’s in a book and I have yet to track down the owner of the photograph. I’m working on it. If you have any idea who James Francis Jordan is and know what I’m talking about, please let me know.

Along the same lines, I often imagine the boxes of unlabeled photographs in attics and basements and archives and offices. It’s quite possible that these boxes contain the exact information you and I are seeking, yet no one will ever know because too much time has elapsed between the photograph’s date and the present. So while the photograph exists, it is not doing us any good. It can happen in families. I have photographs of family members and no one knows who they are. How sad is it to have a photograph of an unnamed subject?

With this matter, I plead: label your photographs. You never know who in your family is going to be historically significant (read: not famous, just important to history in some way), or who will benefit from the dates and names of people in the photographs. Nowadays, we take hundreds of digital photographs in a span of days. Talk about being annoying to label, especially if you’re traveling and you try to label those photographs weeks later. Sometimes the task is impossible.  

For posterity, do your best to organize photographs and family documents and pass them from generation to generation. Many historical societies receive family collections, which in turn benefit researchers near and far. Local history has previously been just that – local and reaching no further. In this digital age, we are able to share local history on the internet. It’s time consuming, but the greater the audience for the documents, the more meaningful they become. You never what someone is researching. 

The Washington State Library has begun the Washington Rural Heritage Project under a similar philosophy: to create a statewide digital repository that will enable rural and small communities to share their unique histories. Evan Robb (my cousin) is the Project Manager.  I’ll feature the project on another post in the near future. In the meantime, I applaud the Washington Rural Heritage Project.

…and I’m going to label more of my photographs.

OHA Reflection #2

The best part of the conference, for me, was Saturday morning from 10:15-12:00, which was the Digital and Community Showcase.  Similar in format to a poster session, only with more digital aspects or posters showcasing digital projects, the purpose of this was to engage in conversation with others who were interested in your project or whose project interested you.  All of the participants in this showcase were demonstrating how they have adapted to the newest technology and in which directions they are taking oral history projects.  My colleague and I presented on Overhills during this showcase. 
Overhills at the Community and Digital Showcase, OHA 2008

Overhills at the Community and Digital Showcase, Oral History Association 2008

During the showcase, people asked us about Overhills as a place, about the oral history project, and about how we are presenting the oral history project. Explaining how we are presenting it is something that makes us proud.  The project is not complete yet (estimated completion, early 2009), but the brief explanation is that we are producing (with the help of a contractor) a flash program which will offer a virtual tour of Overhills.  Viewers will have the opportunity to learn about Overhills through interview clips and photographs, organized by topics, through a timeline that offers brief decade by decade history, or through the interactive map which will help to spatially orient the viewer on these 10,500 acres. The interactive map begins with a base map, from which a viewer can choose certain areas of the estate. This area map then links to individual buildings with photographs, building histories, and information about the people who lived there.  Our hope is that anyone will find this presentation of public history interesting, as it faciliates a self-guided tour during which the viewer is never locked in to topic or media section.
If you’re interested in learning more about our interactive flash media project, please let me know. I’d be happy to answer any questions. Once the project is complete, it will be available to anyone by contacting the Fort Bragg Cultural Resources office.
I always enjoy talking to people about Overhills and explaining the oral history project, particularly because we are attempting to take it beyond typical oral history research, by combining all of our available elements.  People at the showcase responded well.  Let me know what you think!
More interesting sessions from the OHA to follow, and photographs, as well a few side trips.  And then Preservation in Pink will resume to normal programming. Thanks for reading!

Overhills Book Release

Today, Monday October 6, 2008 is the official release date of Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin & Kaitlin O’Shea.

Please read about the book on the Overhills website. On the website you can find FAQs about Overhills, contact information for Irwin & O’Shea, author biographies, and up-to-date posts about sale locations, book signings, interviews, etc.  If you would like to contact Kaitlin or Jeff about the Arcadia Publishing experience in general, they are more than glad to answer your questions.

Of course, you can easily reach Kaitlin by leaving comments below or emailing preservationinpink@gmail.com.  Enjoy! It’s a great story about the old Rockefeller estate.

Oral History & Me? It’s Complicated.

You know how it goes. You’re tired, you’re covered in dirt, your brain hurts, and you want a glass of water or a soda or something stronger.  You can’t bear the thought of measuring one more darn window sill or trying to accurately document a door frame.   At what point does it become ridiculous? Or you can’t lift one more screen of dirt. Yes, you’ve succumbed to just referring to it as dirt and rocks.  Or you’ve transcribed hours of interviews and if you have to replay one more line of recording, you’re going to explode! 

Sometimes our work is exhausting and excruciating.  Sometimes it’s all we have to keep doing what we’re doing because it gets monotonous and plain difficult. Where is the light at the end of the tunnel, we may ask.   

In my oral history line of work, I have listened to recordings and excerpts from recordings and read the text excerpts more times than I would ever want to count.  I’ve heard everyone’s voices so many times that I can truly hear their voices in my head. When I’m reading a piece of the transcript, I remember the inflection of a particular word before I hear it.  Do you call this a sickness? Perhaps it is an acquired skill?  Maybe it is an inherent skill? No matter what the cause, you can see what oral history does to a person.

However, I imagine that all fields benefit from the suffering that our brains incur by absorbing the information.  This is how one becomes an “expert.”  [Readers: examples from your branch of preservation are welcome!] And while I may complain about the tedious nature of oral history once in a while, I realize that without this occasional redundancy, I would not understand my project as well.  I’d have to look up something that an interviewee said rather than automatically have it in the front of my brain.  Having everything at hand saves time and assists in compiling the history I’ve learned. A necessary evil? 

I have come to think of my project, Overhills, as a sibling.  No matter how much this place drives me crazy and how much I want to escape sometimes, I love it dearly. I love everything about Overhills: the environment, the people, the buildings, and the history.  I love the fact that I do remember about 90% of what my interviewees said during an interview.  I love that I know the community of Overhills because of my indulgence in the oral history project.  No matter how mad it makes me, it can always make me smile.

And thus I tell myself: these are the sorts of trials that we must face in our professions in order to do our very best and to offer our subjects of study what they deserve. Whether a building, a community, a landscape, or the unknown: without hard work, memorization, immersion, and tirelessness (okay, and tiredness), all aspects of the historic preservation field require our unwavering devotion.  And these subjects forgive our times of frustration because they know we’ll come crawling back to them to continue our research and studies. It’s a labor of love. Thankfully, I have found a balanced love-hate relationship to be healthy.   But, still, my feelings are complicated.

Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin and Kaitlin O’Shea

Aside from our responsibilities at Fort Bragg, Jeff and I thought that an Images of America book with Arcadia Publishing would be a great way to tell the story of Overhills because we have hundreds of images available.  The process involved a proposal, sample text and images, and upon earning a contract, months of hard work and Overhills thoughts for about ¾ of our days.


The book will not be on sale until October 6, 2008, but now that is finished, edited, and officially on Arcadia’s website, I am ready to tell the world.  Click below for the link to Arcadia Publishing.  (You can also google our names and Overhills.)


Overhills on Arcadia Publishing



Here is the back cover text:


Book Description: In the early 1900s, Overhills emerged as an exclusive hunt club hidden among the longleaf pine and wiregrass forest, sandy roads, and rural solitude of the North Carolina Sandhills. Soon becoming the Overhills Country Club, this rustic retreat featured a clubhouse, horse stables, dog kennels, train station, post office, and a golf course designed by the legendary Donald Ross. At its height, Overhills boasted fox hunting, bird hunting, polo, and golf with personal cottages on the property commissioned by William Averell Harriman and Percy Avery Rockefeller. By the era of the Great Depression, Overhills evolved from a country club to a country estate for the family of Percy and Isabel Rockefeller, lasting well into the latter decades of the 20th century. Throughout its history, the resident employees and tenant farmers of Overhills contributed to a unique community in this private southern arcadia.

Author Bio: Archaeologist Jeffrey D. Irwin and historic preservationist Kaitlin O’Shea have studied Overhills through the Overhills Oral History Project, conducted on behalf of the U.S. Army at Fort Bragg. The photographs featured in this collection date primarily to the 1920s and 1930s; many of these rare images have been provided by former residents and employees of Overhills.


Email me with any questions about the book and if you live near us, stay tuned for book signings once it is released!


If you would like to see a larger version of the cover, click here for pdf version: Overhills by Jeffrey D. Irwin and Kaitlin O’Shea