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Local Volunteers’ work to preserve county history

Handwritten records and notes provide glimpses into life in early Johnson County. Several surprising discoveries of how the county handled money and esponsibilities have already been made. Each piece of paper holds the potential to shed new light on the community’s ancestors and their values. Photo by Marlana Ward

By Marlana Ward
Freelance Writer

“It is important that we preserve this history for future generations.”

Johnson County has many genealogy and history enthusiasts. To these individuals who find purpose and passion in pouring over historical documents and online family history sites, nothing is more important to their search than official documents and accounts of their ancestors. Recently, a small group of local “Archive Volunteers” volunteers began a project, which has the potential to help many enthusiasts in their pursuit of history in Johnson County.
The project began when the condition of the county’s historical records was shared with a few, concerned individuals. The books and records containing court documents, receipts from county offices, and other records from the beginnings of Johnson County were being stored in a building without climate control or proper storage, and the documents were showing significant signs of deterioration.

The first step in the preservation process was to remove the files, books, and other records from the building they were being stored into a more hospitable environment with room for the volunteers to begin their work. A location was found which provided the needed space and security and work began.

Currently, the volunteers are still sorting through the many, many records and painstakingly cleaning as much of the debris as possible from folders, papers, and books. Some of the documents found date back to the 1830’s and as such, require great patience and care in reviewing the information contained within. Unfortunately, due to the inadequate care and storage of the documents in decades past, some of the materials found were significantly damaged.
Volunteers have gained glimpses into life for early Johnson County citizens. For example, when the county road department would come to a residential road to do repairs, every citizen who lived on that road was expected to work for the department as an employee throughout the repairs unless a medical excuse from a doctor or trusted witness was provided.

It has also been discovered how the county took on responsibilities for its citizens that would be unheard of today. The county government supported the county home for invalids and even paid for the burials of a surprising number of citizens not necessarily limited to those considered indigent. A record was also found which showed that the county paid for a local child to be sent to a school for the blind in Nashville.

One story found within the records was the death of Johnson Grindstaff in 1924. Near the Doeville community, a body was found in the middle of the road. Upon discovery, a coroner’s inquest was called for, and the county coroner along with six men from the community came out to investigate. People questioned in the city reported hearing at least five gunshots that evening. The deceased man was identified as Grindstaff, and it was determined he had been hit shot three times. He had been hit in the wrist, the tenth rib, and as recorded, “in the union suit.” “Once the inquest was complete, the seven men left the body lying in the street and went home. It is unknown who finally came to lay Grindstaff to rest. His official death certificate listed his cause of death as “shot by an unknown person.”

Another interesting account in the records is that of the polling place for the 5th District in the Neva community. According to county files, in 1907 the county was petitioned to pay for the use of a citizen’s building for hosting the elections. It was noted that before this, elections were held under a large tree on the citizen’s property. The tree was also where early military in the area would muster for official business. After a few years, the gentleman’s father who owned the property with the tree allowed the use of a room in his house for the elections. Upon the gentleman’s passing, his son still allowed the polling place on his property but moved the location to a room within the mill. According to the documents found, the property owner’s request for reimbursement for the use of his building came after repeated instances of those at the elections “hiding their hooch around his property and causing a ruckus.” The county refused to pay the man, and he went on to write a poem about the incidents.

The Archive Volunteers are working diligently to preserve stories such as these for future generations. “Preserving these documents will give us a sense of how our ancestors lived and dealt with day to day life in Johnson County,” one volunteer shared. “It is important that we preserve this history for future generations.”

The group understands the importance of historic preservation and realizes the vital role these documents could play in a person’s journey to find their family history. As stated by a group representative, “The volunteers dedicate their time and effort piecing together odd bits of information and documents to aid others

with their own genealogical and historical quests.”
The project will be a lengthy one, as the group must take great care as they go through each piece of history. The Archive Volunteers hope that in the next few years the cleaning, sorting, and initial cataloging of the records will be completed and the group can begin creating a digital catalog of the information for the public to share.