Dawn Peters of the Watauga Historical Association and Dr. Floyd May show some of the century old records he rescued from the trash. (photo contributed by Dawn Peters)
ELIZABETHTON — “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” That old saying was certainly true of a stack of papers Dr. Floyd May found recently.
He happened upon a large pile of old ledgers, letters and old records that had been taken out of a house on North Main Street and left on the side of the street for the garbage truck.
“I don’t know a lot about history,” May said. He had focused his life’s work on the practice of medicine, but he thought local historians might be able to glean something from the stack of papers.
So Dr. May gathered up the old documents and got in touch with Dawn and Jackie Peters, Janette Mann, Teresa Treadway and Lisa Germaine, who are all members of the Watauga Historical Association.
May turned the documents over to them and hoped they would find something useful in the pile that was being thrown out a garbage.
Dawn Peters said the collection is so large that they have not yet had a chance to go through everything, but she recognized there was plenty of valuable items for an archive.
She said the items included a stack of ledgers for the old C.M. Cass Store in Stoney Creek from the 1880s. The pages recorded in minute detail the transactions conducted in the store, everything from farm supplies to single purchases of matches or thread.
The ledgers provide a glimpse into the way people lived in Stoney Creek more than 125 years ago. Page after page records what people bought and how much they paid.
Many of the transactions were for the basics, such as one can of peaches for 20 cents, or three dozen eggs for 25 cents. Three pounds of coffee was 50 cents.
The ledgers can also be used to recreate the cycle of the people’s lives. In the spring, farmers were busy getting supplies to plant their crops, perhaps purchasing a hundred pounds of corn seed and some farming implements.
In the fall, there were entries where the store purchased some of the harvest of rye, oats, corn or wheat.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the people started buying some luxuries they did not buy any other time of the year, including fancy cards, lacy handkerchiefs and fine leather boots.
Medicines were also sold in the store. A small bottle of paragoric, which had opium as its principal active ingredient, sold for 10 cents. A dram of “powders” sold for 25 cents. A box of “pills” also sold for 25 cents.
Fabric for making clothes was also sold. A purchase of 19.5 yards of calico totalled $1.62. Denim was called “jeans” and 6 yards of the fabric sold for $1.50.
Perhaps one of the best examples of how hard it was to earn a dollar can be seen by the store’s purchase of tanning bark. The bark had to be oak or chestnut and it had to be prepared in a prescribed way so mold would not set in. It then had to be packaged in a certain manner. For all the work of gathering, preparing and packaging the bark, it could be sold to the store for $2 per cord.
Peters said the ledgers also show how people paid for their needs in a time before credit cards. The store ran an account on each customer, showing how much had been charged, and payments made on the account. Sometimes the payments might only be in a nickel or a dime.
One important source of currency came from Civil War pensions. The ledgers show every pension check cashed in the store. Privates received $12 every three months.
Peters said the ledger can also be used for genealogical research, especially since it covers the 1880s. Most of the 1890 census was destroyed in a 1921 fire, so there is a 20-year gap in census records.
The ledgers record the names of most people living in the vicinity of the two stores operated by Alexander Frazier in the 1880s, one in Hunter and one in Pinhook. It also records the children. Busy housewives would send their older children to make purchases and those transactions normally carried the names of the parents of the children.
The other documents in the collection are also valuable because Frazier had other jobs besides running a store. He was a postmaster for the Watauga Valley Post Office and a stationmaster for the railroad running through Stoney Creek at the time.
Frazier saved many of the documents from his correspondence with the railroad and the Postal Department. His descendants kept the collection throughout their lives and passed it on until Dr. May found it sitting beside the curb and waiting for the garbage truck.
May helped preserve the lives of many Carter Countians during his long career, and he has also helped to preserve some of their history. He modestly claims not to know much about history, but he knows its importance to the community.