Historian David Gray above under took a project in the early 1980’s to clean and care for some of the county’s neglected records. Gray was a dedicated member of the Rhea County Historical Society. (Photo courtesy Rhea Historical Society)
Time had not been kind to Rhea’s Records
Rhea County Courthouse and the county’s records tell a story of the history through time. These records are tucked away in the basement of the historic courthouse.
Let us look back to a 1983 interview with historian David Gray. Gray, a member of the Rhea County Historical Society, was from Sale Creek.
From this interview, we learned that Gray undertook a project in the early 1980’s to clean and organize all of the records that were stored in the basement. These records were in a poor and unkept condition.
Upon entering the room in the basement where the records were stored, Gray said, “One would find an amazing number of boxes, files and volumes- all little pieces of the history of Rhea County.”
At the time, Gray stated that not all of the county’s records were in the room. Some were out in the public in hands of private collections, and some are lost.
Efforts to preserve the records of the county had been an ongoing struggle for years for some custodians of the records.
The records were found in various shapes and conditions. Gray found that some of the records were neatly sorted and indexed on the shelves, while some boxes were water damaged other loose documents cluttered the shelves and floor.
Among Gray’s efforts had been to abstract and index all of the chancery court records for the county as well as the abstracting of other county records.
Gray noted that past and current office holders at the time of his restoration project had a primary responsibility of day-to-day service to the public, which may or may not have involved maintenance of all county records. “Deeds, for example retain their importance because of title search needs but other records may not have daily use”, Gray stated.
A portion of the county’s records are in the Barnes Collection at the University of Tennessee Library in Knoxville.
Ted Mercer, Bryan College president and local historian, stated that the creation of the Barnes Collection came as a result from county officials disposing of numerous boxes of records in the early 1930’s.
“Some office holders during the 1930’s had threw them onto the street to be disposed. Barnes was a student of history and had salvaged many of the records which are now apart of the special collections at U.T. in Knoxville.
Local officials faced a similar problem in the mid 1970’s prior to the renovation of the courthouse. Gray said boxes of records, scheduled for burning, filled the basement as did water from a broken water pipe.
The county’s historical society stepped in and attempted to salvage as many of these records as they could.
Gray said that some of the incompleteness of county records occurred due to the move of the county seat from Old Washington to Dayton, and during the Union occupation of Old Washington during the Civil War.
According to Gray, the Union Army allegedly burned many of the county records during the occupation, some of these records have turned up in antique stores and collections and now are in the hands of private collectors.
Gray indicated that some of the early county officials maintained offices in their houses and some of these officials may have used county records as kindling.
Gray said that efforts should be made to preserve any records with a historical or genealogical significance. But he does not see any reason to try and reassemble other county records unless storage conditions for the records improve.
Since David Gray undertook this project, there have been more than 40 additional years of records added to the collection. These records are now under the care of the county’s official full time archivist Jacob Ellis who is tasked with the responsibility for the proper care and storage of the county’s records.
Ellis also serves as the current president of the Rhea County Historical Society.
George D. Barnes Collection On Rhea County
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Wanda MorganJuly 14, 2021 at 11:51 am
Thank you so much for sharing this info.
So sad some of the early records were not kept in good
condition. Thanks to these people some of our
history has been saved.