By Marlana Ward
The hills and valleys of Johnson County have long echoed the stories and songs that bear record of an area steeped in history and tradition. Preserving these memories and passing them down to future generations has been the passion and mission of many residents past and present.
For over 40 years, the Johnson County Historical Society has been documenting the history of this area so that the people who helped form our community and the examples they set forth do not fade away and be forgotten.
The Johnson County Historical Society began by a group of like-minded individuals with a passion for history. “A group of 15 area citizens under the leadership of Walter Wilson met on September 22, 1977,” shared Kathy Terrill, Historical Society President. “In November of 1977, the first officers were elected. Those first elected were: President- John Butler, Vice-President- Bob Morrison, Secretary- Mary Ward, and Treasurer- Rena Shoun.” The society was well underway and became chartered on December 15, 1977.
Since its formation, the group has gathered stories from the many families whose ancestors settled the Johnson County area. Because of its easternmost location in the state and proximity to other territories, the area has always been a crossroads for American travelers and adventurers.
Whether it be the story of how Daniel Boone traversed these mountains, the original stories of the family settlements, which dot the hilly landscape, the legendary capture of a nationally known outlaw, or how local businessmen began companies that have lasted over 100 years in a small town, the historical society is interested in protecting history for all who will follow.
There are many great stories from this area, but one, in particular, is a fine representation of what the society hopes to achieve in the gathering and recording county history. This story is, of course, the one of how Tom Dula, or Tom Dooley as he is better known from a song, was captured in Johnson County. Not only has this tale been recorded in written stories, movies, and nationally recognized folk-song, but the local arts organizations have also assisted in sharing the story of Dula. “I was privileged to be a part of the community theater’s production of ‘Always, Tom Dooley,’” Terrill expressed. “I might add that the mural located on the side of Mountain City Antiques and Collectibles painted by Cristy Dunn also depicts this capture.” The historical society’s efforts in learning more about Dula and the collection of facts and myths surrounding his capture have helped cement his place in Johnson County history.
Another way the historical society has preserved many of the stories they have gathered is with the publication of The History of Johnson County. The large, hardbound books have become a fixture in many area homes and are a great reminder of how Johnson County came to be. “We have published three history books in Volume 1 in1986 Volume 2 in 2000 and Volume 3 in 2015,” said Terrill. Many families pass these history books down and place their family mementos within the pages to be protected for descendants.
In addition to the history books, the society also maintains a museum of county artifacts at the Johnson County Welcome Center. The museum allows visitors to the area to catch a glimpse of the determined Appalachian people who settled this area and how they battled adversity to make a home for those living here today. Some of the items housed in the museum include farm implements, Native-American arrowheads found in local fields, antique tableware manufactured here and used by past residents, relics from previous businesses, photos depicting ancestors of common family surnames, and many more relics of days gone by.
The Johnson County Historical Society is always interested in learning more about our area and the people who helped build it. If anyone has a story, they would like to share with the group for future generations the society is eager to listen. “You may contact anyone in the membership or leave your contact information at the Johnson County Welcome Center,” encouraged Terrill.
For those who would like to be even more involved with the preservation of Johnson County history, the opportunity to join the historical society is a great way to do so. “Membership is open to anyone who has interest in all aspects of our history,” Terrill stated. “Our regular meetings are held the third Sunday of each month, and we meet at the lower level of the welcomecenter unless we are planning a special event, such as a trip to a historical site.”
With an area so rich in history and interesting figures, the existence of a historical society is vital to ensure that these stories are not forgotten. As new generations step forward to guard our heritage for years to come, thesociety’s responsibility to the future will fall upon their shoulders. “The Historical Society hasbeen involved in many aspects of preserving the history, and we are constantly trying to recruit anyone who has a love of our history and want to help in keeping our heritage safe and accessible to all who comes after us. We hope the upcoming generations will be pleased with our effort to document their history and will continue to carry on this legacy.”