Voter ledger books

A wealth of information can be gleaned from voter ledger books.

This retirement thing is not so bad. It’s nice to finally have the time to spend an hour or two in the Register of Deeds Office just for fun.

Back in my newsroom days, I’d go in there periodically, but I typically had to hurry and look up whatever I needed to know and rush back to get a story written in time for that week’s paper. On a recent Monday, however, I could take my time in examining some records I hadn’t seen before: Jackson County voter rolls from the early part of the 20th century.

There are two ledger books for each precinct, one with information on voting in two-year intervals from 1940 through 1948, and the second covering the elections from 1950 through 1964.

The ledgers have voter qualifications pasted in front, and then list the name, age, post office, place of birth and elections voted in for each person. In the earlier books, the pages are done by letter only, meaning that, in the Canada No. 1 book I first looked at, the Browns, Brooms and Burrells were all intermingled. In the later ones, party affiliation has been added, and there is more than one page for each letter, with the organization being more by the first two letters of each last name, meaning the Browns and Brooms stayed together, but the Burrells were on another page.

Looking at the registration requirements, we learn that the voting age was 21, and “idiots and lunatics,” along with those convicted of crimes, were not allowed to register.

Because I lived and worked in Canada community for several years, those are the books I turned to first. I looked for the names of people I worked with on Tommy Beutell’s Christmas tree farm, and others I knew.

I found Alvin and Rodger Burrell, both of whom I met while working for Tommy. Though brothers, the two rarely agreed on anything. If Alvin showed me one way to shear a tree, Rodger would come along in a few minutes and tell me to do it a different way. Others on the crew explained it was because one was a Republican, while the other was a Democrat. For all these years, I’ve thought that Alvin, the more talkative one, was the Democrat and the more reserved Rodger the Republican. But no. Right there in the second ledger book it shows an “R” by Alvin’s name and a “D” by Rodger’s.

Often they apparently canceled each other’s vote, but Rodger was the more dedicated of the two. He voted in every election, primary and general from 1950 through 1964; Alvin turned out only for the general elections, except in 1954 and 1964 when he didn’t vote at all, and 1962, when he voted in both the primary and general. I also found Lorena Broom, who operated a store six or seven miles up N.C. 281, near the old Argura Post Office. She was always extra nice to me and tolerant of my city upbringing – she was always willing to explain local customs and once gave me a bowl of soup that I still remember as about the best I’ve ever had.

Looking for my Rock Bridge neighbors, and the friends and acquaintances who frequented Phillips Store (much farther up 281 and located between Wolf and Tanasee lakes), I had to turn to the ledgers for the Canada No. 2 precinct. There I found not only Jim Phillips, who ran the store during the years I lived there, but also his mother, Hattie, who I met, and his father, Hester, who was only a legend by the time I arrived on the scene. Jim’s younger brother Jake (J.L.) is there, too.

Jake and his wife Alice used to carry the mail and sometimes I’d ride with them when I was in graduate school at Western Carolina University. Jake once asked me a memorable question, wondering whether “college is harder than fifth grade,” which was the last year he went to school. I told him what I still believe to be true, that as long as you take each grade in order from fifth on through college, each year’s about the same, but that college would be pretty hard if you tried to do it straight from fifth grade.

That precinct’s roll includes several of the Nicholson brothers I saw at the store – Vernon, Herbert and Herman, as well as Herbert’s wife, Dot (Her first name was actually Irona, though I never heard anyone call her that), and Vernon’s wife, Emma Jo. Herman Nicholson had lived in the house at Rock Bridge I moved into and gave me a wonderful painting that he left there.

I found my neighbor, Fannie Mae Brown, as well as her husband, Thad. I never met Thad, who died around 1950, but I worked with their son, L.C., on the tree farm. Another neighbor, Howard Brown, a relative of Thad’s who lived in another house on Fannie Mae’s place, is there in the ledger book as is Howard’s father, Bain, another person I only heard about.

For Canada No. 1, almost everyone’s post office was listed as “Argura,” with a few “Tuckasegees.” Looking at Canada No. 2, most people were listed as “Wolf Mountain.”

The thing about those books is that they make the people I knew then, almost all of whom are gone now, seem alive. It allows me to think about them living their lives – going to register, remembering to vote – in a way that a cemetery visit does not.

I’ll likely revisit these books, as I’m sure each one has stories to tell.

Lynn Hotaling was editor of The Sylva Herald for 18 years, retiring in January 2016. She is the author of two books on local history.