In 1946, Gilmer Jones formed the Macon County Historical Society as a non-profit organization in an effort to save the Nikwasi Indian Mound. He and other citizens of the, county raised $1,500 to buy the mound even local school children donated their pennies to the effort. Once they had purchased the mound from the landowner, they then deeded it to the Town of Franklin. Afterwards, the society became dormant until America’s bicentennial in 1976, when Jessie Sutton and others resurrected the organization. The goal of the society was and still is to collect and preserve materials and information that is special to Macon County, while bringing together those who are interested in the history of the area. The historical society published the first of the Macon Heritage Books during the time of the bicentennial.
With the proceeds of the sale of the Macon Heritage Books, the society purchased the Pendergrass Building in 1988, and in 1990, it was converted to a museum to house the society and all of the things it hoped to share with the public. It can still be found there today, right across from the county courthouse. The building was constructed by Rev. J.R. Pendergrass who used it as a store selling such goods as groceries and school supplies. The building was also used as a gathering spot for locals, often hosting afternoon chess games while the Reverend conducted wedding ceremonies in a make-shift wedding parlor located at the back of the store. The building that houses the Macon County Historical Museum has its own history.
Most of the items on display have either been donated or are on loan from Macon County families. Of these items, visitors are apt to find tools used on local farms that were spread all around the region, Cherokee artifacts that date back hundreds of years, private gun collections, as well as many other period pieces.
According to Robert Shook, curator of the museum, Franklin was the last formal surrender of the Confederate Army as the Civil War came to a conclusion and the truce took place directly in front of where the museum stands today. A month after Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, the Union army arrived in Franklin declaring victory. Not believing it, William Holland Thomas and Thomas Legion of Cherokee Indians and Highlanders sent a courier to Asheville and three days later it was confirmed that the South had in fact lost the war.
Since the Civil War figures significantly in the town's history, the museum houses many remnants of the local involvement in the war. The museum showcases is an original Springfield musket, some pistols, and a sword from the Battle of Chickamauga‚ fought Sept. 19-20, 1863, in northwestern Georgia. Onlookers can also find medical and dentistry tools with the artifacts that were used by Drs. George Rush and A.C. Brabson during the war to treat Confederate soldiers. Volunteer Reed Henson, who is a Civil War re-enactor, gladly makes the rounds at the local schools to discuss the Civil War and show students some of the artifacts from the period helping the society be involved with the children of Macon County.
The society and the museum are instrumental in the Airing of the Quilts Festival that takes place in May as well as the Folk Festival that is held annually on every third Saturday in July on Main Street in Franklin.
“During the last Folk Festival, we wrote down zip codes,” said Shook. “We couldn't get them all of course, but there were visitors from Florida, Atlanta, the eastern part of the state, and up North.”
When no festivals are taking place, the museum still attracts a number of passers-by and locals alike, looking to learn a little more about the history and culture of Macon County. According to Shook, on a slow day, 10 people may come through, but on a good day the museum averages around 50 visitors.
The museum is able to operate thanks to proceeds derived from historical society memberships, donations, and profits from the society-run thrift shop that can be found on Phillips Street where the old library once stood. The society hosts a couple of fundraisers a year, but an ongoing one is the Memory Garden in the alley near the museum where bricks can be purchased and placed with names of loved ones to live on for years to come.
The county and the town allocate some money to the organization, but the society feels fortunate that the building is paid for. “We try to keep everything on the bare-bones. We're fortunate that we're not indebted,” said Shook. “Basically, it’s the day- to-day expenses like heat, water and sewer. With a building this old, there's always some sort of maintenance though. Last summer we put a new roof on, so hopefully we'll be good for a little while.”
Shook is the only paid employee, but many volunteers can be seen in the back rooms of the museum or arranging items at the thrift shop. Those interested in the Historical Society can find Shook at the museum on Main Street, directly across from the Court House from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m, Monday through Friday and can also look for the museum to begin opening on Saturdays once the summer months come around. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated not only by the Macon County Historical Society, but also by those who call Macon County home and the visitors who want to learn more about the unique culture that can be found here in Western North Carolina.