Catawba College prof nears end of nearly 25-year history writing project

Professional historian Gary Freeze is nearing the end of a nearly 25-year writing project that’s drawn him deep into a narrow slice of North Carolina’s past.

Edward Gibbon took about that long on his three-volume “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,” and so did Shelby Foote with his three-volume Civil War narrative.

Freeze, 62, who also wrote a trilogy, spent all his time focusing on one place. A professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, he was commissioned by Catawba County to write what he thought would be one history book.

More than two decades later, he’s putting the finishing touches on the third volume.

The first books sold thousands of copies and won national awards. Expectations are high for the final volume, due out in late 2015.

“Gary has done an excellent job,” said Sidney Halma, former executive director of the Catawba County Historical Association. “They’re very readable and written in a popular style so people can understand.”

The first book, which covered the period 1747 to 1900, came out in 1995; the second, dealing with the period from 1900 to 1948, was published in 2002. The illustrated hardbound books are available at various locations around the county, including the History Museum of Catawba County in Newton.

Most professional historians don’t sink valuable time into writing about local history, Halma said. That’s left largely to amateurs.

But Halma said Freeze combined high academic standards with storytelling.

“The books are informal and entertaining,” Halma said.

Passes the test

Kevin Cherry, the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources’ deputy secretary of archives and history, had Freeze as a teacher at UNC Chapel Hill and praised his support of North Carolina history and storytelling abilities.

“He’s done great work in telling the story in-depth of one county,” Cherry said.

Catawba County historian Sylvia Ray helped Freeze along the way.

Ray, 77, is retired editor of Newton’s Observer-News-Enterprise, a newspaper once owned by her uncle, Charles H. Mebane Jr

Her family’s Catawba County roots go back to 1747 when Adam Sherrill crossed the Catawba River at present-day Sherrills Ford.

She’s impressed with the way Freeze immersed himself in the county.

When Ray was a newspaper editor, she judged county commissioner candidates’ partly on their knowledge of obscure Catawba County locales like Catfish, Mombo, Banoak and Brookford.

“Gary knows where they are,” Ray said. “And he’s a brilliant writer. He thinks like a journalist. What’s going to make a good story?”

The Catawba County saga “is the story of the South, if you think about it,” she said.

Moment of epipany

Growing up in the Iredell County town of Troutman, Freeze’s hero was Charlotte Observer photographer Don Sturkey.

“He got to do stuff I wanted to do,” Freeze said.

In 1970, Freeze landed a job at the Statesville Record & Landmark and later worked on the Daily Tar Heel at UNC Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar. He graduated in 1975 with a degree in American Studies.

Freeze returned to the Record & Landmark, where he copy edited Homer Keever’s columns about Iredell County history. In 1976, he worked with the Iredell County Bicentennial Commission, a job that “whetted my appetite for history.”

But he was having second thoughts about journalism.

“I wasn’t good enough,” Freeze said.

Changing direction, he returned UNC Chapel Hill in 1977 and earned a master’s degree in history.

Freeze got a Ph.D in history at UNC Chapel Hill and taught there and N.C. State University. He was at Erskine College in Due West, S.C., when the Catawba County history project landed in his lap in 1990.

The county’s first choice had been the dean of North Carolina historians – UNC Chapel Hill professor William Powell – but he wasn’t available. Freeze had been Powell’s assistant at UNC Chapel Hill, and Powell put Freeze in touch with Catawba County officials.

After he got the job he promised to be innovative and thorough.

“I’ve been playing a game of getting it done ever since, “Freeze said.

For the first two books, he worked during the summers, doing research and interviews and reading old newspapers. He took a semester off from teaching to work on the third book, which covers the period 1947 through 1991.

While some have criticized the books for having too many details, Freeze thinks they make the narrative more readable.

Universal story

As he crossed over three centuries, delving into personalities and events, Freeze discovered he was doing the same kind of things journalists do. And he found that despite constant change in every time period there was always a core continuity.

Examples of continuity in his books include Shurtape Technologies, which grew out of Shuford Mills, founded in 1880, and Century Furniture, founded in 1947 and one of the world’s largest privately owned manufacturers of upper-end residential furniture.

The annual Soldiers Reunion still being held in Newton is the oldest remaining militia rally in North Carolina.

The Catawba County trilogy may be about local history, but Freeze sees it as a universal story. He said all sorts of people, not just the rich and prominent, are included. Racial issues, which caused problems in the county during the 1960s, are also covered.

“It’s like the truth about a small place in America that helps us understand the rest of America,” Freeze said.