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SMITHFIELD — For history enthusiasts, the Johnston County Heritage Center is the place to explore the county’s past.
The heritage center, located at 241 E. Market St., Smithfield, has been located in the former First Citizens Bank building since 2000.
Director Todd Johnson said more counties have taken an interest in preserving their heritage.
“Interest picked up during the nation’s bicentennial,” said Johnson. “Families use us for genealogy research and school groups, clubs and seniors also enjoy the center.”
The center is a public-private partnership. Johnson said local patrons make annual contributions.
“I give credit to the county leaders for seeing this as something important,” said Johnson.
The first floor has display exhibits. The current exhibit, “White Liquor and White Lies,” runs through December. It features moonshine stills and a display devoted to the late Percy Flowers. Flowers was a Selma businessman, philanthropist, noted fox hunter and North Carolina’s No. 1 producer of illegal alcohol in the mid-20th century.
The center offers free online access to more than half a million Johnston County records including census data, newspapers, obituaries, military records and marriages.
Historic walking tours of Smithfield are also available.
One of its most popular programs is its annual ghost tour before Halloween at the town’s old Riverside Cemetery, which dates back to 1777.
“We have ‘ghosts’ of some of Johnston County’s most interesting characters who tell their stories to the visitors,” said Johnson. “We have a committee who selects the top five or six ‘ghosts’ each year.”
Sometimes, the center is able to find family members who portray their ancestors.
This year, “Rooster” Narron portrayed his father, major league baseball player Sam Narron.
Narron played three seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s and 1940s and was a bullpen catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers and a bullpen coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was inducted in the Kinston Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988. Sam Narron died in 1996 at the age of 83.
One major project is preserving Johnston County’s abandoned cemeteries.
“With Johnston County’s growth, we want to make sure these cemeteries aren’t destroyed or threatened,” said Johnson. “There are also private cemeteries on farms and in people’s yards. People want to make sure their ancestors are protected.”
Johnson said the center sometimes gets unusual requests.
“We had a lady come in one day whose mother had been murdered by her father,” said Johnson. “She wanted to locate old newspaper articles about the crime. It’s rewarding to help someone like that find closure.”
Adopted children also visit the Johnston County Heritage Center to find information about their birth parents and families, said Johnson.
“It’s like detective work,” said Johnson. “People have become so scattered. They leave home and become disconnected. People all have that innate need to feel like they belong to something. As people get older, they become more interested in their heritage.’”
Collecting oral histories is an ongoing project, said Johnson.
“We have two projects,” said Johnson. “With one, we’re trying to find people who were involved in the early years of school integration in Johnston County, 1965-1969. We’re looking for people, both black and white, who were students, teachers and parents during that period.”
The heritage center has also collected oral histories from World War II, Korean War and Vietnam veterans.
“There are only a handful of World War II and Korean veterans left,” said Johnson. “We would like to get more Vietnam veterans to come in and provide oral histories, but many don’t wish to talk about their experience.”
Johnson said the center works with the Johnston County Veterans Affairs office to locate veterans who might wish to participate.
Johnson has been director of the heritage center for three years. Before that, he was director of the Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield.
The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays except for holidays. Admission is free.
Two-hour parking is allowed along adjacent streets. Free all-day parking is available in nearby off-street lots, the largest of which sits behind the public library on the east side of North Third Street. For more information, call 919-934-2836.