Tar Heeled and feathered

Encyclopedia of North Carolina

If you leave early and arrive late, you can drive across North Carolina in a single day. The online trip-tracker Mapquest calculates the west-to-east distance “from Murphy to Manteo” — from the mountains to the sea (or vice versa) — as 560 miles, or roughly 10 hours by car.

If you took Mapquest’s route and stuck to that schedule, you’d get some sense of the scale of our state, but you couldn’t take in much besides highways. And you sure as hell wouldn’t learn as much as you would by reading the Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolia Press, 2006), the new volume edited by William S. Powell.

That said, it’d take a lot more than a day to wade through this 1,328-page opus, which weighs in at 7 pounds, 2 ounces.

How long, no one knows. But we do know that it took Powell, a history professor emeritus at UNC-Chapel Hill, 15 years of writing and editing to bring this Tar Heelia treatise into print. Aided by some 560 contributors, he compiled about 2,000 entries, along with 350 illustrations and maps.

Powell set out to create a volume that would serve as “a means by which all of us can view our state in its entirety and perhaps plan a future based on a better understanding of our common history,” he writes in the preface. Such a sprawling endeavor, cautions Powell, “has undoubtedly been more art than science.”

Most folks, it seems safe to say, would find as much as they’d ever want to know about North Carolina in this book, which covers everything from art to politics, from agriculture to military matters, from the natural environment to architectural feats to commerce, culture and more. Reaching back to the beginning of the state’s recorded history, the book brings us up almost to the present day.

For the generalist, there are succinct summaries of the crucial turning points and key places and personalities that led North Carolina to where it is today. But the real gems are the little-known particulars that are here for the mining.

The entries offer rich detail on topics both expected — NASCAR, tobacco, the Colonial and Civil War eras, the state’s native and immigrant communities — and surprising. Not only is there an entry on the historic Jesse Helms vs. Jim Hunt U.S. Senate race in 1984, but there’s also one on hemp production. An entry on moonshine sits next to one on mooning (that’s right, the kind that involves some southern exposure). And an unflinching four-page summary of the way infectious diseases, of all things, shaped the state’s development is followed by one on the role of information technology.

Some of the most controversial aspects of state history get their due. Eight entries, for example, address slavery, including coverage of clandestine economies, codes, names, narratives, rebellions and patrols that hunted runaways. An eight-page entry co-written by Powell gives the civil rights movement a thorough review. And the now-notorious work of the North Carolina Eugenics Board, which approved the sterilization of some 7,600 residents between 1929 and 1974, is detailed as well.

Still, there are some surprising omissions in a book that aims to be comprehensive. One is William Dudley Pelley, the Asheville-based leader of the pro-Hitler Silver Shirts, who caused so much federal consternation in the 1930s that he was ultimately jailed for sedition. Another is modern-day outlaw Eric Rudolph — who, while not a North Carolina native, focused plenty of attention on the area during his five years in hiding near Murphy.

It’s true that Rudolph’s legal case was concluded only last year, so his is perhaps too fresh a story to have made the cut. Subsequent editions, notes Powell, will seek to correct glaring oversights, so Rudolph’s history, however distasteful, may eventually find a place here.

In the meantime, this giant pile of paper offers something for just about everyone who’s ever called North Carolina home. It might even inspire somebody to make that trek from Murphy to Manteo — and check out a few back roads along the way.

About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

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