LaGrange historian works to capture local history in new book
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 24, 2013 1:46 PM
The prototype of the front cover of "Images of LaGrange," a historical and photo-driven history of the town expected to be published in the fall.
Tranquil and neighborly LaGrange, which borders Goldsboro to the east, may have earned the nickname "The Garden Spot" years ago, but make no mistake -- there are a lot of stories that haven't been told.
"We've discovered sabers in the ground from the Civil War that officers would have carried, buried in the ground. They were either taken off by force or left behind. We have found bullets. The history of the town is just remarkable," said Chris McCallister, local historian.
Ever since the West Virginia native found a "charming" house in LaGrange and moved there a decade ago to teach state and U.S. history at Frink Middle School, he said he has been impressed and enlightened by the stories about that community.
"A lot of the folks who built the state of North Carolina were not only from Lenoir County but from LaGrange, and the stories are just not getting told," he said.
The Historical Society in LaGrange has been an active group and McCallister has also used his platform in the classroom to further the cause.
"I have been teaching LaGrange history for 10 years," he said. He incorporates the local angle for eighth-graders each year. "It takes about a month. I reserve the end to teach local history.
"We take walking tours of the town, point out houses. The thing we do every year is go out to the cemetery and pick a grave of someone and we'll tell the stories."
It's been worthwhile to pass along the town's legacy to future generations, McCallister says, but also realizes the value of having a written record.
"Tommy Crews, my neighbor, started telling me about all the history," he recalls. "I asked, 'Anybody ever write this down?' He said he learned a lot of it had been passed along by word of mouth."
As a student of history, McCallister said he decided to investigate the authenticity of some of the stories he was hearing. That led him to the historical society as well as other state archives and he was pleasantly surprised to learn that many tales he'd heard were easily confirmed.
All of which led him down another path that he hopes will preserve the town's history for posterity -- Images of America, a book series that chronicles the history of small towns and downtowns across the nation. Arcadia Publishing has published more than 6,000 such hometown histories.
"I had been at a Barnes & Noble, I had seen one of those books and, teaching North Carolina (history), as a local historian, all the things that we study about LaGrange, I called Arcadia, started rattling off some of the history," he said. "The next thing I knew they put me in touch with an editor and they made me an offer."
That was about a year and a half ago. In the time since, he's been collecting gathering everything for the LaGrange version of the book.
"It takes a while to get a collection of photographs," he said. "I could write the history, but Arcadia's approach is, let them see what you're writing. I'm trying to wrap it up by August. They want to get it out in the late fall.
"The community's getting behind it. I think there's a lot of people that are going to look at that book and say, 'I didn't know that.'"
Things like how Council Wooten was a six-time member of the House of Commons and a delegate at the Constitutional Convention of 1835. Or William Moseley, after whose family the community of Moseley Hall derived its name, the first governor of Florida.
J.Y. Joyner is another citizen included in the book. Raised on a farm near LaGrange, in 1901, then-Governor Charles B. Aycock appointed him superintendent of public instruction, where he is credited with making sweeping reforms in the state's system.
The book will roughly cover the late 1700s up to the 1980s, McCallister said.
Right now, he is seeking any photographs from the 1860s to 1970s.
He already has pictures of some of the downtown stores in 1910, of the first Ford dealership, veterans from World Wars I and II, the first fire station, things that for years "have only been talked about," he said.
"Under each picture (in the book) I give solid conversation about what they're looking at as well as the history of what they're viewing," he said, adding, "It's been enjoyable being able to tell people, these are true stories."
Lynn Taylor, of Rouse Funeral Home, has assisted in compiling information, McCallister said.
The book will be dedicated to two of its most beloved citizens, Bob Rouse and Cecil Burke, who passed away in recent years.
Rouse, whose family business was Rouse Funeral Home, was a neighbor of McCallister's and Burke became a friend and source of useful information.
"Those guys, I knew them very, very well," he said. "Living next door to Bob was like going to history class every day. Bob Rouse taught me like 75 percent of the LaGrange history that I know today and Cecil Burke taught me the other 25. Some of the greatest pleasure I have ever had was showing Bob Rouse pictures of people he had only heard about."
Anyone with photos to contribute to the project is asked to do so as soon as possible. For information, email McCallister at firstname.lastname@example.org.