A Not-So-Buried Grayson County Treasure Trove: The 1931 Farm Family Study

In the early years of the Great Depression, a team of 15 men and women visited the homes of more than 300 families in Grayson County, Virginia to ask residents dozens of questions—some rather personal—about their homes, their farms, and their lives. The questions solicited data for a survey conducted by the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station and the U. S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Bureau of Home Economics. Conducted over the course of nine weeks in Grayson County’s Elk Creek and Wilson Creek districts, the survey formed part of a larger study of social and economic conditions in the southern Appalachian highlands. The resulting report was to “form the basis for the development of effective and much needed home extension work as well as furnish valuable information of use to the departments of education, public health, the state traveling library, and other agencies …” (Annual Report of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute Agricultural Experiment Station, 1931). The collected data was later used in Faith M. Williams’ 1935 report, “Variations in Farm-Family Living” (in United States Dept. of Agriculture Miscellaneous Publication 205, “Economic and Social Problems and Conditions of the Southern Appalachian Highlands,” available online here.)

Here in Special Collections, the original survey records may be found in the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Grayson County) (Ms1940-023). Nearly 90 years after the survey’s completion, the responses generated by it remain a rich source of raw, granular data for a sizable chunk of Grayson County’s rural population at that time. Comprising a painstakingly meticulous record of a community in the southern Appalachian highlands, the survey data could today be used in examining any number of social, economic, agricultural, or other trends.

Today, however, we’re going to look at the collection from a different angle. For Grayson County local and family historians, the survey responses can provide an unintended wealth of information. Here in a single place are detailed records of 300 of the county’s families, providing data on their employment, income, education—even how many pairs of underwear they made or purchased in a year. As an example, I’ve chosen a single family at random to see what the survey can tell us about them. All of the information that follows is derived from the survey itself, with no outside sources consulted:

On June 29, 1931, surveyors T. M. Dean and Amelia H. Fuller visited the Birkett F. and Ruth Sutherland Taylor family of the Comers Rock area in Grayson County’s Elk Creek District. The Taylors were asked to provide information for the 12-month period ending on March 31, 1931. Given the number of questions asked, the visit must have taken the greater part of the couple’s day.

Birkett Taylor, 42 at the time of the study, was the son of Freel and Bell Harrington Taylor. Ruth Sutherland Taylor, his 38-year-old wife, was the daughter of Alex and Eliza Comer Sutherland. Both Birkett and Ruth were natives of Grayson County, as were their parents. Birkett had attended four years of high school, while Ruth had attended 14 years of school, averaging 16 weeks per year.

In this first section of the survey, the Birkett Taylor family is identified by name. Subsequent pages identify the family only by the record number, 122, assigned to them here.

Birkett and Ruth had been married for 19 years and were distantly related by blood, being fourth cousins. The Taylors had a rather large family, with four daughters (ages 17, 10, 3 years, and 13 months) and five sons (ages 19, 15, 13, eight, and five). Also living in the household was Birkett’s 62-year-old mother. The family had no boarders or hired help living with them. (They seem to have had frequent guests, however, having provided an estimated 416 meals to guests during the year.)

The Taylors’ two-story, 1500-square-foot frame house had been built in 1881 and was remodeled in 1901. Valued at $2,222, the mortgaged home had a sound metal roof and a single-layer, unfinished floor. Stretching across the full front of the home was a porch, seven feet deep; a smaller, 30 x 7-foot porch was attached to the back of the house. The weathered home had 12 rooms including a kitchen, dining room, and parlor. Birkett and Ruth shared their bedroom with three of their children. Four sons shared another bedroom, and two daughters were in a third. Birkett’s mother, Bell Taylor, had use of the fourth bedroom. The surveyors gave the home a poor rating in terms of cleanliness and neatness. Surrounding the house was a picket fence in poor condition. The yard included shade trees, rosebushes, peonies, and lilies. Nearby were the family’s cellar and a vented privy. The home sat on The Taylors’ 210-acre farm, with 102 acres in pasture and another 55 acres devoted to crops.

In addition to two fireplaces, the house was heated by a woodstove and a coal stove. The family cooked on a woodstove, and the home was lit with kerosene lamps. (The Taylors had spent $50 on 50 cords of wood during the previous year and a dollar on five gallons of kerosene.) A handpump at the sink drew clean water from a spring 500 yards from the house. For bathing, the Taylors used one of two galvanized washtubs in the home, and the family had a gasoline-powered washing machine for laundry. Clothing was pressed with one of three stove-heated irons owned by the family.

The Taylor home was furnished with 15 straightback chairs, five rocking chairs, five tables (in addition to any tables in the kitchen), and a desk. For bedding, the family had five feather ticks, nine straw ticks, and two mattresses. The Taylors also owned three clocks, a piano, a foot-powered sewing machine, and a radio (purchased within the previous year for $30).

There had been no deaths in the Taylors’ immediate family during the previous year. Reporting on serious illnesses in the family, Birkett mentioned that he’d had pneumonia, as had the couple’s 15-year-old son. Ruth reported having had a baby. During the previous year, the Taylors had spent $20 on dental work and $75 for medical services, and they had received free vaccinations.

The Taylors were members of a church and had tithed a total of $10 during the year. They’d paid $4 in income tax and $4 in poll taxes. Other expenses included $2 on cosmetics, $2.60 on toiletries and barber visits, $13 on tobacco, and $3.60 on photography. The family had spent nothing on gifts throughout the year, except at Christmas, when two dollars’ worth of food gifts were distributed within the family. Other Christmas food gifts—valued at five dollars—were given from what the family had themselves produced during the year. No gifts were given outside the immediate family. For the year, total expenditures on recreation and leisure amounted to $42.60.

The Taylors’ children helped significantly with the farm work, the older boys performing the milking, livestock care, field work, and vegetable gardening. The eldest girl, meanwhile, helped to care for the younger children, cleaned, cooked, and did laundry. The children also picked berries during the year (30 gallons total) and gathered nuts (150 pounds total). With the help of her eldest daughter, Ruth canned 194 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 40 quarts of jams and preserves, 120 quarts of fruit butters, four quarts of jelly, and 122 quarts of meat. They dried another 10 pounds of fruits and vegetables and pickled 44 quarts of fruits and vegetables, 10 quarts of sauerkraut, and 25 quarts of cottage cheese. They’d also made 96 pounds of sausage and 122 pounds of lard. The Taylors’ teenaged sons had assisted in the butchering of four hogs and one steer and had also hunted wild game, bringing home 12 squirrels and 36 rabbits. The boys had also caught four pounds of fish.

The Taylor farm had produced 75 bushels of apples in the previous year, at a value of $75, as well as two gallons of cherries, valued at $2.00. Other harvested produce included 1200 pounds of white potatoes ($20.00); 112 pounds of beets ($2.00), 5 pounds of carrots ($5.00), 5 pounds of onions ($5.00), 40 pounds of turnip greens ($2.00), 400 pounds of cabbage ($8.00), 20 pounds of lettuce ($1.20), 192 pounds of cucumbers ($4.00), 15 pounds of tomatoes ($15.00), 528 pounds of string beans ($22.00), 120 pounds of dry beans ($7.00), 32.1 pounds of peas ($5.00), and 360 pounds of green corn ($6.00), in addition to many other crops omitted here. They’d also collected 250 pounds of honey, valued at $50.

In addition to farming, Birkett Taylor worked as a miller and carpenter. He earned little as a carpenter during the year (just $50) but made another $410 in lumber and in another unspecified business. The two eldest Taylor boys, meanwhile, had brought in another $100 by working on local roads. The boys earned an additional $284 in hauling, and three of the boys sold some of the rabbits they’d killed, for $7.20. The Taylors’ daughters had not worked outside the home but sold some of the nuts that they’d gathered, for $7.80. The family’s total income for the previous year totaled $1093.00.

The family supplemented their garden harvest with produce purchased with cash or trade, mostly at the Comers Rock store, three miles distant. During the year, the family purchased 120 pounds of watermelons for $1.50. They’d also purchased 12 pounds of string beans ($1), three pounds of prunes ($.30), 6.56 pounds of raisins ($1.05), two dozen oranges ($.60), 1.59 pounds of peanut butter ($.60). Among the family’s other food purchases were 25 loaves of bread ($22.50), 6 boxes of crackers ($.30), 7.5 pounds of oatmeal ($.90), 6 boxes of prepared breakfast foods ($.60), 24 pounds of rice ($2.40), 12 pounds of macaroni ($3.60), 500 pounds of sugar ($30.00), 25 pounds of brown sugar ($1.50), and candy ($10). They bought no tea and only three pounds of coffee ($.60), but consumed 24 pounds of Postum ($6.00) and three pounds of cocoa ($.90).

From a page in the survey we learn that the Taylors (identified here simply as family unit 122) spent just $10 on candy and other sweets during the year. The family undoubtedly used some of the 500 pounds of sugar purchased during this same time period for homemade treats.

The Taylors made most of their own clothing. For the year, they reported spending $46.87 for clothing or materials on female members of the family; $188.65 on the males. Many of these items were purchased at Long Gap, in Wytheville, or through mail-order catalogs, these being cheaper alternatives to the store in Comers Rock.

In the interest of brevity, I’ve omitted here much of what the survey tells us about the Taylors. Other survey responses reveal, in detail, the number of times each family member journeyed away from home and for what purpose, the quantity and cost of each article of clothing spent on each family member, the number of pillowcases and screens in the home, which newspapers and magazines were read by the family, and, well—the list just goes on and on. No less interesting is what the survey tells us about what the family didn’t have. For example, one blank response tells us that the Taylors, like many of their neighbors, didn’t own a car. Other blank table cells tell us which crops the family didn’t raise, which products they didn’t purchase from the store, which types of plants weren’t in their yard, etc.

The image of the Taylors that emerges from the survey is remarkably detailed. Without using a single photo or a word of narrative, the survey responses give us a portrait of one southwestern Virginia family,  based entirely on objective data provided by the family itself and the observations of the surveyors.

I should perhaps note here that the data is not easily retrievable. The survey records contain hundreds of individuals sheets divided among several volumes, each volume comprised of several sets of questions, all arranged first by question, then by record number, not by family name. Nor is the survey infallible. (In seeking more information on the Taylors, for example, I found this page on findagrave, which revealed that Mr. Taylor’s name was “Birket” rather than “Birkett.”)

Despite the cumbersome arrangement of the records, they would prove an invaluable tool for any genealogist or local historian who’s looking for information on an area family and is willing to undertake a little digging. Moreover, the survey continues to hold inestimable value for its original, intended use. Extending this gleaning exercise over the entire survey, an interested researcher could develop any number of projects from the meticulous records created by 15 workers during that summer of 1931.

More on the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station Farm Family Study (Ms1940-023) may be found in the collection’s finding aid.

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Safe Zone at Virginia Tech

June is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month in the United States. It is a separate observance from Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender History Month which takes place in October. LGBT Pride Month (or LGBTQ+ Pride Month, or LGBTTIQQ2SA, or whatever umbrella term you are comfortable with) was created in response to the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York City which followed a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village. It is now 49 years since the Stonewall Riots, and 59 years since the Cooper’s Donuts Riots in Los Angeles, and Pride Month has become a worldwide phenomenon celebrating the spectrum of sexualities and genders encompassed within the umbrella of LGBTQ+. But, there are still instances of bullying and violence against this community. Just last year, during Pride Month, a mass shooting happened at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.

Given the violence against the LGBTQ+ community that prompted the creation of Pride Month – and the violence that still happens to the community today, I thought I’d write about Safe Zone at Virginia Tech in honor of Pride Month this year.

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The Safe Zone program at Virginia Tech was established in 1998 in an effort to create a more welcoming environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community. We recently finished processing the HokiePRIDE Records (RG 31/14/15) which include some early documents related to the Safe Zone program defining what or who a Safe Zone is. Listen to David Hernandez talk about the definition of a Safe Zone in his 2014 oral history from The Virginia Tech LGBTQ Oral History Collection (Ms2015-007).

An early Safe Zone Resource Manual (circa 2000), includes information about the history of the program as well as basic information about terms and symbols used by members of the LGBTQ+ community.

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Over time, the Safe Zone program has evolved. It was initially guided by the direction of members of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Alliance (LGBTA) of Virginia Tech (later known as HokiePRIDE). Later, it fell under the direction of the Department of Student Affairs and the Multicultural Center. Most recently, it has been run through the LGBTQ+ Resource Center. Safe Zone has been a part of Virginia Tech for the last 20 years!

Society has advanced significantly regarding acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community and so has Virginia Tech. Still, educating people on campus about LGBTQ+ issues remains important and the Safe Zone program remains a vital way for members of the community to identify people who are supportive and have a basic training on issues affecting the community.

I hope you enjoyed learning a little about the Safe Zone program at Virginia Tech. If you want to see more of the materials from the HokiePRIDE records (RG 31/14/15), stop by Special Collections and have a look!

If you have materials related to the history of the Safe Zone program at Virginia Tech, HokiePRIDE, or LGBTQ+ history at Virginia Tech and are interested in donating to Special Collections, please contact us using the link at top of this page.

Student Activism at Virginia Tech

Throughout the month of May, Special Collections is displaying an exhibit on five decades of student activism at Virginia Tech. The exhibit highlights several campaigns and demonstrations from 1968 through today, including impromptu vigils for Martin Luther King Jr. and Trayvon Martin, the student occupation of Williams Hall in the wake of the Kent State shootings, anti-war marches and pro-military responses, demonstrations against racism and sexual violence, calls for the protection of natural resources in Appalachia, protests against exploitative labor conditions, LGBTQ pride rallies, and campaigns to highlight ADA violations across campus. These materials come from the University Archives and manuscript collections of Virginia Tech alumni.

Alongside these materials, we’ve chosen to highlight the work of a single student organization at Virginia Tech. The Appalachian Student Organizing Committee (or Appalachian Student Committee) operated as an official student organization of Virginia Tech in the early 1970s. The Committee aimed to raise awareness of Appalachian issues and provide support for other grassroots groups in the region. Under the leadership of student organizers David Tice and Allan Cox, the group worked throughout the region to address issues such as land use, energy policy, poverty, access to health care, labor rights, systemic racism in Appalachia, and the Vietnam War.

In May 1971, several chapter members traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in a national civil disobedience campaign which resulted in the arrest of more than 12,000 people. The Special Collections exhibit includes memos and training materials distributed on campus to student affiliates. Additionally, visitors to Special Collections can review information about the Community Free Clinic of Blacksburg (1971-1972). This initiative was part of a national movement to establish locally responsive and accessible health care throughout the country.

To see these materials in person, visit Special Collections in Newman Library anytime during the month of May.

A Little Something Extra

Archives are so very rarely complete. It’s an unusual thing for the archivist to be able to point to a collection and say with full  confidence, “That’s all there is.” More often, we have to admit, “That’s all we have.” And so, researchers make due with what’s on hand, knowing that someday, some newly discovered item may appear and bring their well-argued theses crashing down. Though it deals with the past, history is a living thing, open to reinterpretation as long-hidden documents are discovered and shared. We regularly hear of such discoveries being made in attics or at flea markets and the like, but sometimes they’re made within the archives itself.

Last month, your blogger was working with a small collection of papers from Sidney B. Jeffreys (Ms1986-007), who graduated from Virginia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering in 1931. Jeffreys maintained a lifelong attachment to his alma mater, becoming an active member of the Virginia Tech Alumni Association and a generous supporter of the university. In 1981, he was recognized as a College of Engineering Distinguished Alumnus.  (You can read more about Sidney Jeffreys and his papers here.) Given Jeffreys’ attachment to Virginia Tech, it’s not surprising that most of the papers in his collection relate to his time as a student and his activities as an alumnus.

Most of the university-related materials in Jeffreys’ papers consists of VT publications, and most of these are of the type that are seen by our archivists every day. Included among these were several issues of The Virginia Tech (the forerunner of today’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times), from the years that Jeffreys attended the university. Here in the department, The Virginia Tech is frequently called upon in the course of answering reference questions or providing students with material for research topics. Our holdings of the paper are nearly—but not quite—complete, and we’re well aware that we lack a couple of years’ worth of issues. As it turns out, though, there was at least one missing issue about which we were unaware:  there,  in Sidney Jeffreys’ papers, was a special, extra edition of The Virginia Tech, published on Saturday, November 10, 1928.

The reason for this extra edition is readily apparent, as it bears a headline that any Hokies fan will enjoy.

The four-page special edition provides a lengthy, detailed description of the homecoming game, played earlier that day before a near-capacity crowd of 8,000 spectators, and it gives a great deal of credit for the win to the exploits of backs Frank Peake and Phil Spear. Elsewhere in this extra edition, readers found a full account of the game between VPI’s freshman team, “The Gobblets,” and their UVA counterparts, which ended in a 13-all tie.

The newspaper also contains articles about the homecoming festivities—this being only the second such event held at Virginia Tech—and about the upcoming observance of Armistice Day. Another brief article announces that plans are underway for a new, modern, and much-needed hotel to be built near the university. On a more somber note, readers learned of the accidental death VPI alumnus Charles B. D. Collyer, a well-known aviator who, just two weeks earlier, had set a new record for a trans-continental flight across the U. S.

Is there anything in this newspaper that will rewrite Virginia Tech history? Well, no (though anybody who’s been looking for a detailed account of the 1928 VPI-Virginia football game will find it a treasure trove). Still, this one item adds just a little detail to the historical record, providing some insight into the activities and cares of the Virginia Tech community in late 1928.

We can only wonder how many more special editions may be out there (or in here), waiting to be found.

The November 10, 1928 extra edition of The Virginia Tech will be added to our existing holdings of the newspaper. It has also been added to the queue in a current project that is digitizing the university’s student newspapers and will soon be making them available online.

Carmen Venegas, VPI’s First International Woman Graduate

Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Carmen Venegas. She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech and, according to the July 15, 1945, profile about her in the Los Angeles Times, she is the first Latin American woman to earn an electrical engineering degree in the United States.

The first international male student came to Virginia Tech in the 1874,  and the first women matriculated in 1921. But, it took much longer for the first international female student to enroll as Venegas joined the student body in 1935. (It would be another 18 years before the first Black male student matriculated in 1953 and another 31 years for the first Black women to enter VT in 1966.)

Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.

Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle
Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle

A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.

Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle
Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle

In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!

Following her time at VPI, Venegas went on to a long and varied career as an engineer, performer, and painter. She married Meade A. Livesay and moved to Los Angeles, where she studied music and art at UCLA. Venegas went on to perform dancing and singing under the name Carmen Lesay.

You can read more about the first women to graduate from Tech and the legacy they left behind in the blog posts linked above as well as on the archived Special Collections’ women’s history section of the 125th Anniversary of Virginia Tech website.

(This post was updated Nov. 9, 2018, with corrections and additional information about Carmen Venegas after her time at Virginia Tech. Thank you to Ivannia Diaz for her corrections and sharing resources with us!)

Chris Kraft: Oral History of an Aerospace Pioneer

Virginia Tech is proud to be the alma mater to many pioneers in aerospace engineering, perhaps none as famous as Christopher Columbus Kraft, Jr. The VT Stories team recorded an oral history interview with Kraft in April 2017, and Special Collections now has the full interview and transcript available online. The VT Stories summary of the interview is available here.

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Chris Kraft being interviewed by VT Stories project director Ren Harman at his home in Houston

Chris Kraft graduated from Tech in 1944 with a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. The university was operating on a 12-month schedule because of WWII, therefore Kraft graduated after only three years. Despite only this truncated time at Virginia Tech, Kraft rose through the ranks to become president of the Corps of Cadets, which he counts as teaching him important leadership skills. Kraft also recounts his classes with Professor Rasche, contracting Scarlet Fever, and dance weekends from his memories at Virginia Tech in his interview.

After graduating at age 20, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the predecessor organization to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Kraft worked at Langley Research Center as a flight test engineer for 13 years, until the space race began.

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Kraft works at his console inside the Flight Control area of the Mercury Control Center, from Wikimedia Commons

In 1958, he became one of the original members of the NASA Space Task Group, which was established to manage Project Mercury, the nation’s first project to put a man in space. During Project Mercury, Kraft developed many of the basic mission and flight control techniques used in manned space flight, which culminated in the creation of the Mission Control Center at the Johnson Space Center (originally the Manned Spacecraft Center) in Houston, from which all of NASA’s manned space flights have been conducted. He also served as Flight Director for all the Mercury missions and many of the Gemini missions. Kraft was named deputy director of the Manned Spacecraft Center in 1970, and later director in 1972. He retired from NASA in 1982 and and subsequently served as a consultant for various corporations. In 2001, Kraft’s autobiography, Flight: My Life in Mission Control was published.

Special Collections also has Kraft’s papers, which he donated in 1986. The collection consists of approximately 28 cu. ft. of manuscripts, particularly NACA and NASA reports and documents, meeting notes and agendas, research materials, and the manuscript for 2001 Kraft’s autobiography. You can view the finding aid for this collection here.


 

 

 

 

Family among the Files

The first thing I did when I started my very first desk shift in Special Collections was grab a mid-1980s copy of The Bugle from the shelf by the door, where you can find almost every copy that was ever published.

My mission — like that of many other visitors to this same shelf — was to find pictures of my parents, who met at Virginia Tech. My mom, then Vicki Higginbotham the engineering, baton-twirling majorette, worked at a Hallmark store in the University Mall with my dad’s sister, Dori Williams, who kept insisting that Vicki simply had to meet her younger brother, who was on the basketball team. Vicki Higginbotham and Philip Williams had their first date on December 26, 1983, a fact that my brother and I are always reminded of during the car ride back from our annual Christmas visit with our grandparents (“oh, it’s the nth anniversary of our first date!”). We pretend that it’s gross that they remember this and systematically mention it every year, but it’s not. They’re lucky to still be so in love after all this time, and my brother and I are even luckier to be a part of it.

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1986 yearbook photo of Mom.

I found my parents’ pictures in the yearbooks, as expected, but I got a special thrill from the action shots of my dad on the basketball court. He played during the years from 1983 to 1987, when Dell Curry was the talk of the town, the players’ shorts would dismally fail our modern-day public-school index-card tests, and all-white Converse All-Stars were still considered acceptable and safe sports footwear. At six-foot-six, Dad, in most of these shots, looks like he barely had to jump to get his hands above the rim for a rebound; in fact, a 1985 yearbook writer asserted that he, as a sophomore, “demonstrated the team’s best fundamental rebounding technique.” In many of the pictures, any given number of his fingers are taped together; perpetually broken or jammed. We have a couple of these photos at home, on the fridge and framed in my brother’s childhood bedroom.

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1987 yearbook photo of Dad, the only senior on that year’s squad.

Most of my work here in Special Collections over the past two-and-a-half years has involved projects on either side of the timeline around the 1980s. I’ve spent a good deal of time transcribing and digitizing letters from the Civil War, World War I, and the years in between. I also spent some months working on an exhibit for the anniversary of the April 16th, 2007 tragedy. A Women’s History Month exhibit in the library inspired me to contribute information on the lives and work of female science fiction writers from the late 1800s to the 1940s and 1950s. Somehow, most of my archives work has neatly danced around my parents’ time at Virginia Tech, and I never really got into the era of big hair and Benatar in Blacksburg through my projects.  

That is, until I started re-labelling the University Archives room.

Working in an archive pays off for me personally because I know that all of the preservation and conservation work being done here will pay off in the long run. For example, we have boxes upon boxes of wartime letters that are still in good shape after a century and a half and, not only that, we allow anyone to come in and hold, read, and examine them with their own two hands. If you think about it, it’s a lot of the same stuff you’d find in a museum without the DO NOT TOUCH signs. The people who work here make this happen through a meticulous system of steps and protocol that impose order on the collections and allow us to provide this experience for patrons. Some of these steps are more tedious and less “thrilling” than others, but all of them are equally important in keeping our system up and running. One of my current assignments is to assist in the reorganization of the record groups (RGs) in the University Archives, which requires moving a lot of boxes around… which requires that every box is labelled accurately and legibly. Most of the boxes are labelled, but the labels are either decades old, written in pencil, or both. My job is to check the contents of each box and replace each label with a more up-to-date and legible label so the boxes can be rearranged. As it turned out, this routine process turned up one of my favorite discoveries in all my time at Special Collections.

In the sports section of the University Archives, I found a box labelled simply “Basketball Programs.” My first thought was “huh, Dad did that.” I opened the box to check what the date range on the programs was so that I could create a more descriptive label and, lo and behold, the programs were from 1984 through 1986.

As I had been going through these boxes, I’d been taking the time to examine the contents partly out of necessity and partly out of curiosity. This time, I’d easily located the date range that I needed to include on the label, but I took the box and sat down in the middle of the aisle on the footstool I’d been using so I could look through the programs. Dad in his #34 jersey was on the cover of two of them — one by himself, taking a jump shot, and the other with Dell Curry, the Cassell Coliseum-banner legend whose son Steph we now see in every other commercial on ESPN.

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Dad on the left, Dell Curry on the right (both mid-leap).

The programs not only brought back my memories of attending games and matching the players below on the floor with their stats which I held in my head, it also brought back the entertaining and often hilarious stories that Dad always told about his basketball days. My most recent memory of this comes from a morning during Thanksgiving weekend, when I sat with my family and some of our close friends around my grandfather’s table, trying desperately not to choke on our breakfast from laughter as my dad told the story of the time he accidentally dislocated Dell’s shoulder, the remainder of practice was cancelled, and it was as if the whole world of sports had abruptly ended. I’d see the the names on the roster and recall the stories I’d heard that went with each name — big moments in big games, hijinks that went on in the after-hours at away games, and the individual quirks and camaraderie among and between teammates. I picked up these programs and proceeded to walk around the entirety of Special Collections, stopping into offices and tugging on sleeves of coworkers to show them what I’d found.

This was a very specific and personal instance of discovery in Special Collections for me, but I know that this has happened at least once for each of us working here, and even for patrons who come in out of curiosity and walk out with a new research project in mind. I showed the programs to one of our full-time archivists, and she revealed that a bookseller who had arrived that morning happened to have a copy of her mother’s book in his collection. Even when I’m working in unfamiliar collections, I find that I’m surprised by the connections I can make based on my own experiences and the relationships that I form with people who are long gone. That’s the joy of working in Special Collections: even the most rudimentary tasks have the potential to lead to the greatest discoveries.

By Rebecca Williams