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For nearly 100 years, the New Hanover County Public Library has been
collecting information relating to the history of the area, the state, and the families that live here.

When it comes to Tar Heel genealogical research, the North Carolina Room of Wilmington’s New Hanover County Public Library just might be the best bet for getting genies of the past out of the bottle. Perhaps no other single spot has so much information from southeastern North Carolina for those in search of their own history--or that of others.

“We’re a wonderful resource for genealogical research and much more,” says Beverly Tetteron, the enthusiastic librarian who was hired to open the North Carolina Room back in 1980. “From family histories to the history of a house, the North Carolina Room provides a wealth of information.”

A Century of Material

The sprawling collection of the North Carolina Room--which is modern and spacious after a major expansion and renovation in 2003--was actually started by the library back way back in 1910. A “Library Wants Material” posting ran in Wilmington’s Evening Dispatch on March 5, 1910, leading to donations of books, pamphlets, papers, documents, and more relating to the history of the area and the state. It was the first local history collection established by a public North Carolina library, providing a variety of library officials almost a century of dedicated material research and retrieval.

“It would be incredibly costly to put together this kind of collection today,” says Tetterton. “Just the newspaper collection alone would well over $100,000, if you could do it at all.” Much of the collection comes from former public and private libraries dating all the way back to the founding of the original Cape Fear Library in 1760. Tetterton, who celebrated her 25th anniversary with the library last year, says it took more than two years on the job to simply catalog and organize what had already been collected--a process that continues daily as more material accumulates.

Dedicated to state, regional, and local history, the North Carolina Room currently contains more than 10,000 state and local history books, pamphlets, government documents, and much more; it covers a wide range of subjects from families and businesses to state and local records, as well as literature, art, and travel. For a who's who of past residents, there's no better place to go: Wilmington city directories date back to 1861, and the library's large selection of local high school yearbooks are quite popular.\

Collecting Collections

The newspaper collection essentially has every major Wilmington newspaper that has been published since 1762 (all on microfilm). Newspapers that have not been transferred to microfilm (like The Wilmington Post, The Wilmington Journal, The Coastal Carolinian, and The Island Gazette) can be viewed if arrangements are made at least one day in advance.

On the photography front, more than 5,000 photographs pertaining mostly to the region await perusal. Most of the collection resulted from contributions (and some purchases) of photographs, postcards (1,500 and counting), line drawings, videos, and other images. Copies of some of these images can be obtained for a fee.

In addition, the North Carolina Room features two unique photography collections. The Louis T. Moore Collection comprises about 900 panoramic-format pictures taken between 1921 and 1940 by Moore, who was the executive secretary of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. The Robert M. Fales Collection consists of more than 1,250 slides that Dr. Fales, a long-time Wilmington physician, made of local images. After he retired, Fales kept regular office hours in the North Carolina Room and was a very popular resource for many researchers. Library veterans say it was often easier to simply ask Dr. Fales a question, rather than digging through the collection to get the exact same answer.

There are also approximately 500 maps and charts in the North Carolina Room, with the earliest Cape Fear region map dating back to 1749 and several “state” maps from the 1600s. Special collections include the Underwood Collection of survey maps and the Sanborn Collection of insurance-oriented maps. The selection continues to grow, as Tetterton continues to collect bus routes and tourist brochures.

Churches have played a major role in the history of the area and local church records are available in both microfilm and in book abstracts. Front Street (Grace) Methodist, St. James Episcopal, St. Mark’s Episcopal, St. Paul’s Lutheran, and St. Thomas Catholic all have early records in the collection.

The “vertical files” section of the North Carolina Room includes a huge collection of newspaper and magazine clippings, pamphlets, and government publications. Special files in this area include the Louis T. Moore Local History Collection; the Rupert Benson Wrightsville Beach Collection, compiled by a former mayor of the island community; and--the most recent addition--the Jenny Henderson Collection, files relating to North Carolina film from 1907 to the present.

In the Conservation Lab, where delicate documents are protected and preserved, visitors can find two important collections that provide a wealth of information about former Wilmington-area residents, including the Bill Reaves Local and Family History Collection, which was created as the former Wilmington Star-News employee collected tens of thousands of clippings--all related to about 6,500 Lower Cape Fear families (or about 10,000 local history categories he developed).

Researchers who dig even deeper will find scrapbooks, account books, diaries, letters, family papers, and even an entire filing cabinet that’s devoted to the large inventory of historic buildings in the area. This is where a North Carolina Room visitor might see Ed Turberg, a local architectural historian who often researches the historic houses and families of downtown Wilmington. “I can’t live without the collection and [I] delve into it daily,” says Turberg.

Genealogical Finds

The library’s North Carolina Room is said to contain the most comprehensive collection of genealogical research materials for southeastern North Carolina, from the hundreds of family histories to numerous volumes of abstracted state and county records to federal census records for all North Carolina counties from 1790 to 1930 (on microfilm).

Family Search and other computer software programs are available for research, as is Internet access to Heritage Quest, Ancestry Library Edition. In addition, library volunteer research assistance as often available, along with the wealth of Beverly Tetterton’s experience--and obvious love of history and people. “I’m fortunate to have met many interesting researchers,” says Tetterton. “The best day of my work life was the day that one of my favorite independent filmmakers, John Sayles, came to do research on a yet-to-be-released film.”

Tetterton also worked with the great-great-grandson of a slave who escaped Wilmington during the Civil War. William Benjamin Gould IV, who was Chairman of the U.S. National Labor Relations Board during the Clinton administration, had a diary from William Benjamin Gould who escaped and was eventually picked up by a Union blockader and joined the Union Navy.

Gould eventually published the diary, which is the only known Civil War naval diary kept by a former slave. Tetterton says the city of Wilmington was eventually designated an Underground Railroad site mostly based on Gould’s research.

Tetterton, who published a book last year about many of Wilmington’s torn down historic buildings called Wilmington: Lost But Not Forgotten, says the wealth of information about the region’s historic architecture is especially helpful for genealogical research. People often want to learn more about the house in which they (or relatives) grew up, as well as other occupants. This has been made much easier thanks to the award-winning “Port City Architecture On-Line," which contains extensive information about more than 400 historic structures in Wilmington and can be found at www.nhcgov.com/Lib/PortCityArch/.

The Society Pages

Library staff members, including Tetterton, also work with the Old New Hanover Genealogical Society to provide genealogical programming for the community, such as lectures by renowned genealogical experts. For instance, a program this past fall focused on researching Quaker history.

Established in 1989, Tetterton says the “friends of the local history room” have been invaluable to genealogical research on the local, state, and national level. Along with the lectures, society members have also supported the genealogical collections with annual financial contributions and--together with the library--have published more than 80 abstracts of local records (available for purchase through the library). Helpful exchange files are available to researchers and all are encouraged to donate copies of their research for use by future researchers.

“I’ve been involved with this wonderful collection since I was a teenager, when I went to an earlier library location and they proceeded to lock me inside a room to do my research, says longtime member and Wilmington native Ann Hutteman. I had to knock on the door for them to let me out.”

Hutteman, who co-edits the Society’s Clarendon Courier genealogical newsletter, says she loves the newly expanded North Carolina Room. “Before they completed the expansion, I thought I was going to have to lose weight to make my way around the stacks,” she says.

As Hutteman sees it, certain parts of the collection are especially helpful in making genealogical research more than just facts and figures. “For instance, both the Bill Reaves Local and Family History Collection and the Yopp Funeral Home Collection put meat on the bones of genealogical numbers and facts.”

If You're Going

North Carolina Room
New Hanover County Public Library
201 Chestnut Street
Wilmington, NC 28401
(910) 798-6305
Hours: Monday through Wednesday, 9:00 am to 8:00 pm; Thursday through Saturday, 9:00 am to 5:00 pm; and Sunday, 1:00 pm to 5:00 pm.