A few years ago, as we were preparing to move the North Carolina Room to its new home on the ground floor at Central, we were forced to take on a daunting task. It involved an area known simply as “Jerry’s Closet”, a large, murky, mysterious room in which a wide variety of semi-unclassifiable items had been stored over a period of thirty years or so.
Each day, some new delight emerged from the darkness. A baseball autographed by people that none of us had ever heard of, and a baseball bat to go with it, inexplicably sawed off to billy club length. Copies of pamphlets whose titles did not appear anywhere on WorldCat. A plank with a brass label stating that it was a part of the original deck of the battleship USS North Carolina.
Then one day, our newest colleague, Audra Eagle, said “Come look at this. What do you think it is?”
A good-sized parcel, swathed in brown wrapping paper, lay astride a couple of cardboard boxes. We carefully peeled back the paper to reveal a large brown ledger book.
“What is it?” was the immediate question. Only one way to find out. We opened the book.
Streaming across the top of the double page spread was the legend:
TAX LIST in_____Township, _____ County, for the YEAR 1890.
As you can see, the blanks were not filled in. But a quick scan of the alphabetically listed names in the leftmost column was all that was needed. We were looking at the 1890 Forsyth County, NC tax book.
I checked a few more pages, just to make sure. All of the key names were there: Alspaugh, Atkins, Bahnson, Bitting, Blair, Blum, Brown, Buxton, Carter, Clement, Conrad, Davis, Fogle, Fries, Glenn, Gorrell, Goslen, Gray, Hairston, Hanes, Hege, Hill, Hinshaw, Leinbach, Lemly, Liipfert, Manly, Miller, Montague, Morgan, Nissen, Norfleet, Ogburn, Patterson, Pitts, Reynolds, Shaffner, Spach, Starbuck, Vogler, Watson, Williamson, Wilson.
Each listing showed the address and value of real property; a categorized listing of personal property, including buildings, furniture, clothing, cows, horses, mules, hogs, right down to the last billy goat gruff. For those engaged in agriculture, business or industry, the values were given for the tools of the trade and any inventory on hand. Other special township taxes – school, road, railroad were added. And the poll tax, $2 per person. And a final accounting. The largest tax payer was not Reynolds, Gray or Hanes, as you might expect – it was F&H Fries of Salem.
But the pages were old and fragile. You could see that if you touched them in the wrong place, an invaluable piece of information could crumble forever. So we reluctantly closed the book, rewrapped it and gingerly transported it to a shelf in our newly built locked cage.
For those not actively involved in genealogy and local history, the import of this discovery might be a bit fuzzy. One of the most important historical resources in the United States is the decennial US census, beginning in 1790 and continuing every ten years thereafter. Through some unbelievably careless mistake, the 1890 US census records were consumed by fire, leaving us with an unbearable 20 year gap in the record.
Many communities across the nation have used a variety of local records, including tax books, to partially reconstruct that lost census. Tax books are not a perfect solution, because they do not include the names of children or spouses. In fact, our tax book contains very few listings of women at all. But they are better than nothing. By adding other records such as estates and wills and obituaries we can at least partially make up for the missing census.
We knew the potential of this old tax book, but we also knew that we could not allow anyone, even ourselves, to turn those pages for fear of the damage that would inevitably occur. We also knew what the solution was…digitization. But we had neither the equipment nor the money to make that happen. So the 1890 tax book slumbered peacefully in its new home in the locked cage for a few more months. But it was not forgotten. We talked about it regularly, floating ideas on how we might accomplish its digitization.
A couple of weeks ago, our fearless leader, Billy King, and our newly minted archivist, Melodie Farnham, transported the 1890 tax book to the Wilson Library in Chapel Hill, where Nicholas Graham and his fabulous staff at the North Carolina Digital Heritage Center took over.
On Tuesday, April 3, Nicholas sent us a link to a sample page of the newly digitized tax book. It was, simply, perfect, and we let him know. Two days later, April 5, Nicholas sent us the link to the entire book at its new permanent home on digitalnc.org
So now you can go to the 1890 Forsyth County Tax Book and find out how much F&H Fries paid in taxes that year. And you can check out 46 year old Harvey Alexander, a landowner in Happy Hill, the county’s oldest black neighborhood, and see how many cows and horses and hogs that he owned (no billy goats, gruff or otherwise) and what they were worth tax wise.
For this and much more, give thanks to Jerry Carroll, Audra Eagle Yun, Melodie Farnham, Billy King, Nicholas Graham and his outstanding crew, the unknown donor of the tax book and the taxpayers, then and now, of Forsyth County and the state of North Carolina. Our heritage is alive and well.
Check it out here: