Local history is a funny thing. Unlike Great Britain, where local history is the subject of scholastic interest, in the U.S. it’s usually the concern of avocational historians who might not be trained in academic theory but who really know how to do the “spade work” required to dig deeply into the past of a community.
Sometimes local history and genealogy intertwine so thoroughly that they’re indistinguishable, but other times the local historian steps back from the family history lens and writes about the locality as a living community that is greater than the sum of its parts.
This is where Martha Dickson operates, and why she has her own record group at the Wiregrass Archives. Dickson worked as an English teacher in middle school, as a university staff member and as an assistant in her husband’s construction company. She is a former resident of Gordon, Alabama, who now lives in Pace, Florida.
In 1999, she published her first book of local history, “Gordon, Alabama: Pioneer Riverboat Town,” about her tiny hometown in the far southeast corner of Houston County. Afterwards, she had more research notes and photographs than she knew what to do with, so she offered them to Dothan’s Landmark Park, which operated as a historical collector of sorts. When the Wiregrass Archives became the official repository of Landmark Park’s collections, Dickson’s materials came here.
She soon added to her research collection at the archives with seven large binders of notes and pictures of wooden churches she and her husband had located in an arc from Tampa, Florida, to Jackson, Mississippi (but missing Georgia and staying south of Birmingham).
Long attracted to religion – in 2000 she published a devotional book titled “Shorelights” – she began studying wooden churches when illnesses of aging family members began to weigh on her. It wasn’t long before she had accumulated 450 photograph and single-paragraph histories of wooden churches of many denominations, and began to think about adding to her collection at the Wiregrass Archives.
We were thrilled to get a snapshot of such an important part of the history of the South – but it came with a caveat. Dickson wanted to publish at least some of these as a book and she needed editorial help. The archives staff was experienced and ready, having already worked on four local history books since 2003. Staff members digitized some of her photo prints, polished some of her existing digital images, typed and edited historical notes on churches, and made the first round of choices of pictures that became the 145 late-19th and early 20th century images in “Anchors of Faith: Early Wooden Churches of the Deep South,” published by NewSouth Books in 2013.
One reviewer noted that “Anchors of Faith” “recalls a time when bells summoned congregants to Sunday services in the Deep South,” and another that it “demonstrates how a religious people enshrined their faith in wood and glass.” Some of the buildings are empty now or no long used as churches, but most still operate. They span from plain vernacular buildings to ornate Gothic Revival, with many being rural interpretations of the Greek Revival style so popular from ca. 1850-1930.
“Anchors of Faith” expands the enterprise of local history from stories of families and locales to a larger story of a community bound by a shared understanding of the world, manifested in spaces enclosed with wood.
Both Dickson and the Wiregrass Archives are proud of “Anchors of Faith” and hope you’ll take an opportunity to enjoy it at your local library or add it to your own collection.
You can see an inventory of the Martha Dickson Papers at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives/inventories/105.html.
It Came from the Archives is an ongoing series spotlighting the fascinating collections at the Wiregrass Archives. To find out more, visit online at https://www.troy.edu/wiregrassarchives or in person in Everett Hall on the Dothan Campus.