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Mac Whatley | Randolph County Historian
Mac Whatley | Randolph County Historian
Q: It's hard to categorize your title because you've done so many things, but you're known as the unofficial or official, depending on who you talk to, local Randolph County Historian. Can you tell me a bit about your background and schooling and how you became a historian?
I grew up in Randolph County and went to Asheboro High School. My parents grew up close by too went to Seagrove High School. I received my undergraduate degree from Harvard University where I specialized in architectural history. I got my MA from UNC Chapel Hill in library science, and a JD degree from NC Central University in Durham. I've had a strong interest in the history of our local area stemming from some of the jobs I've taken on and my background. I practiced law locally for almost 30 years and yet when this position working in the Randolph Room at the Asheboro/Randolph Public Library became available, I knew it would be a good fit. So here I am!
Q: Weren't you the mayor of Franklinville?
Yes, I still live in Franklinville and I was elected mayor there three times starting in 1983 through 1987, then again from 1991 to 2006. I serve on their Board of Commissioners now.
Q: So can you tell me a little bit about the Deep River Trail and the Deep River Rail Trail in Franklinville? Are they the same thing?
The Deep River Rail Trail follows the right of way of the Cape Fear and Yadkin Valley or "Atlantic and Yadkin" Railway, which operated from 1889 to 1984. The piece of the trail now open is less than a mile, but as we get funding to build bridges to replace the missing trestles, it will run for three to four miles from Cedar Falls through Franklinville to Ramseur. The ultimate plan is to connect it with the Deep River Trail that runs along the Deep River all the way around the lake from High Point. The entire Deep River State Trail corridor is mainly a paddle trail now for canoes and kayaks that run through Guilford, Randolph, Chatham, Moore, and Lee Counties. The goal is to complete a 15 mile stretch of it through Randolph County for hikers, walkers, joggers, and bikers, which will be great for the whole area.
The trail was used by Native Americans and was a very important part of our local history in regards to transporting textiles going all the way through the Revolutionary War.
Q: What is the Faith Rock Historical Landmark?
Faith Rock is a Revolutionary War landmark that relates to the story of Colonel David Fanning, the Tory (pro-British) leader who carried on a guerilla war in central North Carolina, even after Cornwallis surrendered in Yorktown. Fanning's headquarters was a Cox's Mill in the southeast part of the county, but he led attacks on government forces as far away as Fayetteville and Hillsborough. Like most guerrilla wars, there was a lot of random violence - murders, house and barn burnings, torture, and Fanning's reputation was merciless. In 1782, he captured a Whig (pro-American) leader named Andrew Hunter and set him up for execution. Unexpectedly Hunter grabbed Fanning's horse, Bay Doe, and rode off on her. Fanning and men chased them through the woods toward what is now Franklinville, thinking Hunter would be trapped on the cliff above Deep River, but Hunter rode Bay Doe down this big treeless rock, about 75 feet above the river, jumped the horse into the water, and swam away escaping. Fanning couldn't follow that kind of suicidal leap, a leap of faith. Thus people started calling it Faith Rock.
Q: Can you summarize the legend of Naomi Wise that made this are so famous in songs from Bob Dylan to Doc Watson?
Naomi Wise was a servant girl living with a Quaker family in the New Salem community of northern Randolph County. She was romanced by Jonathan Lewis, a local Constable or deputy sheriff, and wanted him to marry her. Instead, he was accused of drowning her in Deep River just east of Randleman, at what's now called Naomi Falls. Lewis was arrested and held in jail in Asheboro for about eight months when he mysteriously escaped. Years later he was tracked down out West and brought back to Randolph County for trial, where he was never convicted of the murder. But the bare facts have taken a back seat to the romance of the traditional folk ballad written about the murder, and a romantic and very inaccurate short story written about it by Professor Braxton Craven of Trinity College, now Duke University. Both the story and the ballad make Naomi out to be a poor innocent virgin taken advantage of by her black-hearted lover, and it makes for a catchy song...but the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Q: Why is preserving local history so important to you?
Local history is personal history. It's who you are. Life is all about decisions made long ago before we even existed that we have to live with today. Preserving history teaches us valuable lessons. Without preserving local history we tend to get historic amnesia and history turns to folklore without proof of the real truth. On a community level, it also teaches us who we are - the past gives insight into our present behaviors, from the very personal, to the national levels.
Q: You've been published many times but you've also written three books about the area here. What are the names of your books and where can we find them? Also, can people come see you at the Randolph Library with their questions?
Randolph County (Images of America) was published in 2010. NC: Randolph County: A Pictorial History was published in 2004. The Architectural History of Randolph County was published in 1985. I can be found most Monday's through Friday's in the Randolph Room specifically to help people with questions they may have about the area and our history. The Randolph Room is located inside Randolph County Public Library located near the courthouse on Worth Street in downtown Asheboro.
Q: What are a couple of your favorite things about Franklinville?
Franklinville was the first mill village to become an incorporated town, in 1846. It is the site of one of the oldest cotton mills in North Carolina, and so it's one of the places where the Industrial Revolution first took root here. It was founded by Elisha Coffin, a member of a Quaker group from the island of Nantucket who moved here in the 1770s and was the leader of the pro-industry, anti-slavery activists of the 19th century. Franklinville was named after Jesse Franklin, a governor, and congressman who led the fight to keep slavery out of Ohio and Indiana. Elisha Coffin and the other mill owners looked at mill work as a social welfare project for widows and orphans, letting them earn a living when there was no social welfare safety net. He built the house I live in now and helped escaped slaves move through Randolph County on the Underground Railroad. There aren't many places in Randolph County with as rich a history as Franklinville.