New exhibits, new items coming to Canton museum

By DeeAnna Haney | Aug 05, 2014
Cole Smathers, president of the Canton Historical Committee, reads a sheriff's ledger of arrests and sentences dating back to 1931.

The Canton Area Historical Museum is getting a breath of new life as the town's newest members of the historical committee have been renovating, restoring and rearranging exhibits.

Though the museum may not be considered large, it's easy to spend hours browsing the hundreds of artifacts, each revealing a little bit more about Canton's past.

The museum houses a variety of historic items from Canton and the region that have been either donated or loaned for exhibit over the years. There are photos, letters, clothing and old newspapers from World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam. A women's side saddle and riding habit from 1902 are on display downstairs.

The most comprehensive collection of The Log, a small newspaper created by the mill, can be found at the museum dating back to the very first edition.

Much of the museum's contents, including a large display of the mill and several pictures, were destroyed in the floods of 2004 when the water line rose to the downstairs ceiling. However, there's still plenty of historic items to line the shelves.

Cole Smathers, president of the Canton Historical Committee, has enjoyed learning more about his hometown's history while poring over antique manuscripts, newspapers, textiles and so much more.

Smathers was inspired to become involved with the historic committee after seeing it during the annual Tour of Homes in December. He felt the condition of the museum left much to be desired if the goal was to attract the public.

"We came in with hopes to clean everything up and make it shine again," Smathers said.

In February, the committee of about 10 people, including Canton Alderman Ralph Hamlett as ex officio, decided to become more active at the museum, beginning with weekly meetings. The previous committee only met a couple times a year, Smathers said.

During their meetings, the committee has been cleaning and reorganizing the exhibits and archiving, sorting and restoring hundreds of old photos. There are still hundreds more old photo negatives in storage that need to be printed.

Among some of the other interesting items are paperwork, brochures and outfits from the Canton lodge of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization and secret society founded in 1864.

The membership continues nationwide today, although it seems the history of the organization in Canton has been stowed away in a closet at the museum. Until now, that is, as the historical committee plans to make an exhibit of the items.

Smathers found another piece of the county's history rotting away in a town storage room.

"This is my ultimate favorite piece in the museum," Smathers said, pulling out two oversized, leather bound books, worn and water damaged, but still in tact.

The pages contain the sheriff's ledger of arrests from 1931 to 1951 with names of the arrested, their charges, their sentence and their release date.

Smathers said that book and others, such as photo books and old newspapers, are portions of the museum that guests can touch and experience, rather than only looking at items tucked safely away behind glass.

"We really want the museum to be more interactive," he said.

Aside from the overhaul of exhibits, there has been another change at the museum. Museum curator, Wayne Carson, took his leave from the part-time job of six years in June. A former Champion International employee, Carson worked from 1959 to 1995, and cultivated many friendships at the mill.

"I took a 'tour' of the mill, you might say," Carson said of his work over those years.

During that time, he worked in quality control, pulp and chemical, store room, carpenter crew, backup foreman and more.

But being the mill's historian was a job and hobby that sort of just fell into his lap in 1990. He remembers being told by a supervisor to go check out an air conditioner that had been left in the office of retired C.W. Harden, who had been the mill's official photographer.

When Carson got to the office, he found it in disarray.

"Someone had jimmied the lock and stuff was scattered everywhere — drawers and cabinets pulled out and pictures all over," he said.

He realized those pictures were a large part of not just the mill's history, but the town's history as well. So he told Ross Kilpatrick, vice president of operations at the mill at the time, about what he had found.

"He said, 'I'm going to make you the historian. You won't get an office or a salary, but you get the stuff and take care of it.' So I brought it home," Carson said.

Those pictures were on display at the museum until he left, and now he is displaying them for the public at other places in town such as Martin's Drug Store, the union hall and First Citizens Bank.

A go-to resource on all things to do with the mill, Carson is always quick to remember the faces and times gone by in Canton. Though he's not in the museum as usual, Carson said he's still willing to help out anyone he can who needs information about the history in the town and especially the mill.

"I'm still a historian and I'm still a supporter of the town of Canton," Carson said.

Smathers said he appreciates all Carson has done over the years to help preserve Canton's history and he hopes

Eventually, Smathers also hopes to start a Friends of the Museum group made of people willing to volunteer and possibly coordinate fundraisers to help restore the mural in the upper floor of the museum.

Reuben B. Robertson, who was president of Champion Fibre Company, built and donated the building that is now the museum to the town to serve as the library.

In 1954, Robertson commissioned famous environmentalist artist Joy Postle to paint the mural depicting the Blue Ridge Mountains, native birds and plants that spans across all four walls.

Smathers said restoring the mural would mean brightening up the fading paint and repairing areas where large nail holes have damaged the walls, but it would likely come at a lofty price.

The museum is currently closed while the committee works on the new exhibits, but Smathers said he hopes to have a soft opening during the town's Labor Day weekend celebration. The committee plans to rotate exhibits at least every six months.

"Our goal is to get the museum to a place where we can be proud of it again and for people to know that it's here," Smathers said.

He is asking anyone interested in donating or loaning historical items to the museum to contact the committee. He is especially interested in creating a display featuring more of the town and county's African American history.

Those who wish to donate financially to the museum may contact town hall at 828-648-2363.