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Jennie Giles pursues mission for local history

Jennie Jones Giles talks about teaching a Henderson County history course. Jennie Jones Giles talks about teaching a Henderson County history course.

Jennie Jones Giles is talking about how the General Assembly stole Saluda from Henderson County by redrawing the Polk County line.

 

"In 1903," she says, "Saluda, which was Henderson County's second incorporated town, became Polk County's second incorporated town."
She is probably the only person alive who has thoroughly researched the military record of Walter H. Bryson, who she asserts is "possibly Henderson County's only 'Buffalo Soldier.'"
Giles traces Bryson's enlistment in the 9th Cavalry, records that put him at Sullivan's Island, S.C., when the 9th Calvary returned from Cuba and other evidence that places him at the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War. It's one more small victory for Giles, who loves nothing better than proving a historical fact about a person, place or thing in Henderson County. Teaching a class on local history at Blue Ridge Community College, she now gets to share her dogged historic research with eager students.
"Bryson died in Hendersonville on July 11, 1917," she writes on her website.
"His grave site is located at Oakdale Cemetery (black section) in Hendersonville. The tombstone reads as follows: '18 years in U.S. Army, died a Sgt. in Troop F, 9th Cavalry, Statsenburg, PI' (this should read Stotsenburg, Philippine Islands)"
Even things etched in stone do not escape the red grease-pencil of the inveterate old copy editor.
"The tombstone is misleading," she says. "Bryson did not die at Fort Stotsenburg. He was based there during the Philippine-American War. He died in Hendersonville. According to his death certificate: 'found dead, unknown causes.'"

One-woman department of corrections

In the life of Giles, correcting the Walter Bryson inscription is another shoulder heave that inches the stone up the hill. If she can't prove it's true, she won't repeat it. And there's plenty in the popular local histories, she insists, that is wrong. She's a crusader for preserving Henderson County history, flattering or blemished. She starts from her own memory and works backward.
A native of Henderson County, Jennifer Jones was born Feb. 1, 1951, to Julius C. "Jack" Jones and Vivian Hill Jones. She descends from at least 30 of the earliest pioneer settlers in Henderson and Polk counties.
"I've been studying this for 30 or 40 years," she says. "I taught social studies in high school. In the genealogy part, that was just part of me. Dad (Jack Jones) was one of the founders of the Genealogy Society and then he went over to Old Buncombe.
"I knew them all," she says of local history writers from the 1950s on. "Jimmy Fain, Frank FitzSimons, Lenoir Ray, they were buddies of my family. I grew up knowing all of 'em and listening to 'em."
She is putting her lifetime of memory, research and accumulated knowledge to use by teaching a continuing education class at Blue Ridge Community College called History and Heritage of Henderson County. (See end of this story for details on how to sign up.) The 90-minute class, offered in the afternoon and at night, meets in four eight-week quarters a year to cover a vast period and broad topics — prehistory to the present day. Giles devotes parts to the Cherokee Indians, early explorers, war, industry, farming, politics, business, tourism, housing, transportation and more.
A Times-News reporter, copy editor and community news coordinator for 27 years, Giles won awards for her coverage of vanishing local cemeteries (some were bulldozed for subdivisions, others overgrown by wilderness, still others neglected) and of an unsolved triple murder of 1966.
"When I did the cemetery series that got me started on some of it because you had to do the history to know who the people were," she says. "When I went to the museum (as director) I started working really close with a lot of folks particularly over at Cherokee, and the people at the Cherokee Museum. Working with state archives, I worked real close with the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources."
Someone suggested she share her knowledge in a formal way.
"It evolved, and I decided, 'Yeah, I could teach that,'" she says.
No one with an interest in local history leaves a class without tucking away a dozen fascinating tidbits, myth-busting facts or interesting profiles of Henderson County natives, some large fraction of which Giles claims as relations. (From twig to trunk, she traces her family tree back to pioneer families with the names of Jones, Hill, Arledge, Clark, Cagle, Rhodes, Jackson, Edney, Justus, Pace and Justice.)
"Henderson County was a great predictor of the national presidential election," she told her class one night last fall. "Now the state of North Carolina wasn't, because the state always went Democratic. But Henderson County was a really good predictor of the national election. Whoever won, whether Democrat or Republican, Henderson County went that way, up until about 1960. William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. So we weren't consistent with one party but we were a great predictor of the national race."

In search of truth

At the knee of her father, a longtime mail carrier and avid student of genealogy, Giles absorbed the stories of the old ways. The more she studied history, the more she learned to spot the gaps between folklore and documentable proof. Just because something is oft repeated, she realized, does not make it true.
"I spent hours finding the primary source documentation on the explorers, going to the libraries in Chapel Hill and South Carolina, at UNCA and Appalachian State and Duke," she says.
She loves prehistory, the story of how the Indians lived. Her course starts in 10,000 BC.
She teaches about both the Cherokee and Catawba tribes, and patrols the ambitious 12,014-year span of history like a one-woman Department of Corrections.
"That's where people are really confused, and they don't understand that nothing we have here locally looks at the Cherokee history (and) the Catawba history and then compares it with what's written here (by local writers), which is totally wrong," she says. Local writers James T. "Jimmy" "Fain (Jr.) and Lenoir Ray and them just copied what Sadie Smathers Patton wrote — and she was wrong. So people just keep repeating wrong information without going back and looking at the primary sources, and actually talking to folks in Cherokee."
Her own knowledge and background invites the question of why she doesn't write the definitive history of Henderson County herself. In a way, she has, in pieces. She's filled her website with coverage of the county's history, decade by decade, topic to topic, supported by airtight research. But what she's finished so far falls short of her own high standard for accuracy and thoroughness.
"Well, I'm still researching," she says, when asked about a book. "I still find mistakes, I'm still talking to people that know more than I do about different things. I just have to keep compiling it. It's never ending.
"You've got to talk to the experts. Right now I'm into Hendersonville. That's not something I've been particularly up on. I have to go to some people that know more than I do. I've got Lu Ann Welter in my afternoon class. She's great because she's done all this work on dating these buildings. I credit her on the website and we go back and forth" giving and receiving information.
Welter, who coordinates the city's historic preservation efforts through the planning department, contributes to classes, as do many others. Sometimes lively discussions erupt.
"We share," she says. "We have a really good mix. They like it because these retirees can ask the local people questions, and they can answer questions that I can't answer."
Of the timeline she covers, she picks prehistory to the 1860s as her favorite "because that's where most of the mistakes are made."
"I don't enjoy teaching the Civil War," she adds. "That's still very controversial in Henderson County."
Why?
"Because the facts aren't what everybody keeps wanting to pretend they are," she says. "The primary source documentation is very clear. This was not a divided county. It was overwhelmingly Confederate."
The topic she enjoys most is one that she shares from the heart and head.
"I think the heritage of the Appalachian Mountain people is my favorite thing to teach," she says. "After they settled here and their way of life, their use of crafts, the agriculture, how they lived on self-sustaining mountain farms. The Appalachian Mountain people. That's who we are, and that's what they're trying to forget here in Henderson County. That pride and the Appalachian Mountain culture."


Field trips

When retired architect Don Wilson took her class, he suggested that Giles lead a tour of the places she was teaching about.
"He wanted field trips," she said of Wilson, an avid researcher of historic architecture and a valuable resource for the Flat Rock and Henderson County historic preservation boards. "He wanted to see the things we were talking about."
One Saturday a month, the class carpools to historic sites around the county. Giles arranges it all.
"When we go on the field trips, I do it by community. We do the entire county in one year," she says. "But I'm not doing the city of Hendersonville because they do their own tour. This is strictly for the county. We've done Mountain Page, we've done Mills River, we've done Crab Creek and Valley Hill, we've done Edneyville and Fruitland. We just finished (late last year) Tuxedo and Green River and Zirconia and Bat Cave and Gerton."
"Like when we did Tuxedo, the mill's gone, so we went to the old mill store and then we talked about the mill," she says. "I've had great luck with local people and pastors coming and talking. When we did Green River, we had lunch at Cedar Springs and Theron was there and talked." Theron Maybin, a farmer, is something like the unofficial mayor of Green River.
"So they love meeting the people within those communities," Giles adds. "Cindy Drake showed up at Pleasant Hill when we did Valley Hill and Crab Creek, they got a huge kick out of that. She's like in her 90s. I get a lot of older people in the community to show up and talk to them.
"When we did Mills River, some of the Brittains actually took them through the old Brittain home." Ray Bryson spoke about history. Drew Brannon led a tour "of the old one-room schoolhouse." In Edneyville, the Costons "gave a whole demonstration of how you process apples."
"They just love that kind of stuff, and it gets them in touch with the local people," she says.
Her classes are generally made up of a mix of retirees who want to learn about their new homes and natives.
If Jennie Jones Giles has a stubborn side — a laser eye for lore that misrepresents historical fact, a copy editor's zeal for spotting a bad date or misspelling, a steel-vault adherence to her own view of mountain culture — she also serves as an evangelist for local mountain heritage and the only link that can preserve it —local people. She tells her students which churches they can visit to hear authentic Appalachian preaching or shape-note singing. She pushes local produce and tells her students where to buy it. She introduces them to community matriarchs and authentic storytellers who still sound like the hollers they came from.
"I tell them where they can go meet local people," she says. "They come into my class (and say), 'I've never met a local person.' Well, start talking to the people that wait on you at Wal-Mart. We're losing our local heritage. We get out and we meet all these local people and they act like they'd never noticed before."

History and Heritage of Henderson County
• Meets 1-1:30 p.m. and 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday at BRCC in Room 213 of the Technical Education Building.
• To sign up, call the Continuing Education Department at 694-1735 or visit www.blueridge.educ or register on campus at the Continuing Education Building, Room 123. Cost: $60.
• The first eight weeks cover prehistory to 1860. The second eight weeks cover 1860 to mid-20th century.