Be roads scholars, historian says

Quite often when we think of history, we remember the great men and women who fought battles, championed causes, made discoveries and saved the day. But as Will Rogers once said, "We can't all be heroes. Someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by."

Those people on the curb are part of history, too, and historian Tom Magnuson has made it his calling not only to impart the history of everyday people, but also to teach why that curb is where it is.

He will speak at 2:30 p.m. next Sunday at the Eastern Cabarrus Historical Society Museum in Mount Pleasant. His talk is free and open to the public, sponsored by the N.C. Humanities Council.

Magnuson lectured on the Great Wagon Road two years ago at the museum, and the audience loved him, said museum member Vicki Isenhour, who is coordinating next Sunday's event. She calls him a "lively and invigorating speaker."

A military historian, Magnuson stumbled into geography's effects on history almost by accident. He said he was a grad student at Duke with two young children and not a lot of money to entertain them. So he'd take them to the river to swim.

As he watched them, observing the land formations, his metaphorical light bulb clicked on. He realized geography's importance not only in military history, dictating battle plans and movement, but in shaping people's migration and location patterns.

Wherever old roads were, Magnuson explained, that's where you find archeology. No one settled far from the roads, so he has made it his work to locate historical traffic patterns and save the evidence of our history. About 10 years ago, he founded the Trading Path Association, a nonprofit organization. Its goal, according to its website,, is "to preserve, promote and study the historic Trading Path of the Southeastern Piedmont."

Magnuson gives talks all over the Southeast. He said his audiences learn a lot of unknown history. He's reviving subjects and history we haven't wanted to talk about in the past.

For example, he told me North Carolina has the highest percentage of multiracial people in the country. At some sad times in our past, that was a subject to be avoided. But now, he said, we could be trendsetters. North Carolina's common people provide rich material for history.

Magnuson said his talk will help explain to people why they live where they live. The geophysical context of Cabarrus County - two rivers and a ridge - dictate much of its history.

Magnuson is a great storyteller. As we ended our conversation, he promised he will not be boring. I don't doubt that in the least.