Heritage One Key To a Brighter Tomorrow?

by Gary Cunard

Maury York with Louisburg
College's North Carolina
book collection

What Louisburg native Maury York discovered when he returned to his roots was a "blank slate," an intriguing challenge and a chance to pull together the region's history and culture for this and future generations to enjoy.

York has fond memories of being a boy growing up in Louisburg and visiting Rose's 5 & 10 downtown, enjoying the aroma of roasting peanuts while selecting the perfect piece of candy for a summer afternoon.

Now, he wants to find ways to capitalize on the unique history and culture of this county, raising the level of appreciation and using it as an economic development tool for the future.

But, first, he wants your suggestions.

"In a sense, we have a blank slate. I have ideas but also a sincere interest in learning what people want to preserve about their history and culture," he said.

The Tar River Center for History and Culture is the brainchild of Dr. Mark La Branche, president of Louisburg College who, as a newcomer to this area, realized that Franklin County and the Tar River region are rich in culture and history dating back to the American Indian.

In a description of the purpose for the center, which will be housed at the college, it's noted that "preserving and promoting history and culture are vital aspects of any thriving community.

"A region so rich in history and culture has untapped potential for significant economic development around these assets.

"Louisburg College proposes to provide the consistent and concerted center of activity necessary for the full development of these resources," the statement notes.

And that's where York fits the plan perfectly.

He recently retired from state service after 32 years - 28 of those years at the J.Y. Joyner Library at East Carolina University, most recently as head of the Manuscripts and Rare Books Department and as assistant director for special collections.

But retirement in the traditional sense wasn't in his plans.

Instead, he and his wife, Dru, an architectural historian, re-discovered Louisburg and the opportunities to get involved in the proposed center for history and culture.

They have already moved to Louisburg - and are formulating plans to restore a house in the historic district.

And, beginning in the fall, he'll be teaching a class in North Carolina History at the college with plans to have students get involved in researching and recording local history and culture.

The goal is to "bring people together in around a sense of shared history, heritage tourism and to support the schools with resources they can use to enhance their classes," York explained.

He also has an eye on developing a walking tour of historic Louisburg and a driving tour of the county.

He wants to work with the Franklin County Arts Council, the Person Place Preservation Society and other similar groups. "We're interested in anything that will promote heritage tourism, education and the local economy," he said.

An example, York said, might be getting Louisburg added to the popular Civil War Trails program that is sponsored by a national organization and centers around points of interest associated with the Civil War.

Although no battles were fought in or around Louisburg, the Army of Tennessee passed through Louisburg in May, 1865, at the end of the war. About 15,000 troops passed through Louisburg. Many of them camped in the college and academy groves until late July. That could help make Louisburg a stop on the trail.

Requests for information about the Civil War Trail are second only to golf in North Carolina, York pointed out, adding that getting visitors to stay, eat and purchase items while they are here would be a boost to the local economy.

He's also got his eye on the Sesquicentennial of the end of the Civil War in 2015 that might help boost interest.

But before he starts talking too much about projects, York emphasizes that the first step will be getting local people involved and finding out what they want the center to be and to do.

"We have to find out what people want and then develop a strategic plan for that," he said.

That said, he also has a long list of proposed activities including:

  • Creating an inventory of historical and cultural assets;
  • Expanding the college archives to receive, preserve and display historical artifacts from the region;
  • Developing an inventory of historic architecture in Franklin County;
  • Creating a program of plaques for structures;
  • Hosting traveling exhibits;
  • Developing walking and driving tours of the region;
  • Developing an oral history program to document the culture, folklore and history of the county and its communities;
  • Finding ways to integrate local history into the curricula of the public schools and Louisburg College;
  • Sponsoring regular lectures pertaining to archaeology, folklore, history and literature;
  • Sponsoring an annual Spring Folk Festival.

In other words, York said, there is literally a "blank slate" that can be filled in according to community wishes - and he said a series of meetings will begin this fall to begin to focus on particular projects and establish priorities.

Regardless of what those priorities turn out to be, York is enjoying his return to Louisburg, the town where he was born and where he graduated from Louisburg High School and Louisburg College.

After graduating from Louisburg College, he headed to UNC Chapel Hill where he earned a bachelor's degree in history, a master's degree in history and a master's in library science.

His career in public history has included positions with the North Carolina Office of Archives and History and the Edgecombe County Memorial Library where he organized and developed the library's local history collection.

He also has written a number of historical articles, mostly in the field of library history and in 2002 published a book, The Privilege to Paint: The Lives of Francis Speight and Sarah Blakeslee.

York married the former Dru Gatewood Haley of South Boston, Va., and they have a daughter, Nancy, who is an admissions counselor for the University of the South.

Dru York earned a master's degree in architectural history at the University of Virginia. She worked for the State Historic Preservation Office for a decade, and since their daughter was born, she has been a private consultant.

She has completed numerous National Register of Historic Places nominations, coauthored a book on the architecture of Perquimans County and recently served as co-editor of a book on the architecture of Halifax County.

York can be reached via e-mail at: myork@louisburg.edu

Reprinted with permission from The Franklin Times