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Historic Cabarrus Association: Preserving Our Heritage

May 26, 2015 10:22AM ● Published by Jason Huddle

The Concord Museum Located in the Historic Cabarrus County Courthouse

By: Kim Cassell

The Historic Cabarrus County Courthouse, at 65 Union Street south in Concord, was scheduled for demolition in 1973 after the completion of the current courthouse. The site was going to be utilized as a parking lot.

Thankfully, a group of residents  – those who founded Historic Cabarrus and Old Courthouse Theatre – looked past its disrepair in the hopes of saving it.

Joanne Gonnerman is executive director of Historic Cabarrus Association (HCA), housed in the historic courthouse. “The condition of the building had become deplorable because of water, pests and wind damage. Historic Cabarrus was formed to keep this building,” she says.

Gonnerman works with a board of directors headed by Reverend Donald Anthony of Grace Lutheran Church, in Concord, and Crown In Glory Lutheran Church, in Salisbury. Together, they, staff and volunteers work as ambassadors in preserving Cabarrus County history.

The Concord Museum – originally called Memorial Hall – was formed in 1939. “A Concord City Alderman, precursor to Concord City Council, requested that the UDC (United Daughters of the Confederacy) collect books to start a museum…not just Concord’s history, but the county’s,” Gonnerman explains. “Memorial Hall was at the site of the Central United Methodist Church parking lot. It was originally a historic home, then a YMCA, then Memorial Hall.”

In 2007, Historic Cabarrus and the Concord Museum – which was then located at 11 Union Street – merged. That prompted a name change to Historic Cabarrus Association.

“This space (HCA) started being used as a museum space in 2012 when the museum closed at 11 Union,” Carrie Myers, archivist for HCA, says. So what was once the office of HCA’s executive director is now the Concord Museum.

“They both kind of operated in their own orbits until 2007 when the two organizations merged and became Historic Cabarrus Association,” Gonnerman says. “The County actually manages the space, so provides all the maintenance for it.”

The Cabarrus Arts Council occupies the remainder of the building.

Another entity of Historic Cabarrus Association is the Veterans Museum. It’s currently located in the Cabarrus County Government Center’s rotunda, at 65 Church Street. Six tall display cases contain mannequins wearing uniforms from World War I to present-day. In addition, mementoes, photos and wall plaques tell the stories of local individuals and the wars they fought in.

HCA has been the recipient of countless artifacts from Cabarrus County’s community leaders’ and founding families’ descendents, and donations continue to be welcomed. “We have a donor agreement for a family that wants to donate something to the museum. We ask that they describe it in detail and then we’ll archive it properly so that we can access it for use,” Myers explains.

“It can also come from organizations and businesses that close,” Gonnerman adds. “McKinnon Presbyterian Church’s elders agreed to close the church last June. A couple physically brought over artifacts from that church.”

A thank-you letter written by Stephen Cabarrus after the county was named after him, the diary of a Civil War chaplain, Isaac Newton Pharr’s memoirs written on wallpaper scraps, oldHCAmilitarytrain photos, clothing, furniture…they’re all in storage.

“We’re itemizing what’s still at 11 Union, plus the two storage rooms on the second floor. We will not be able to move anymore over here because there is no more room,” Gonnerman explains.

Enter, Myers. She came on board in 2013 and has been assigned the task of organizing HCA’s museum archives. With a share of a $75,000 grant from the Cannon Foundation, HCA is now able to scan its extensive collection of letters, documents and photos. Looking to digitally archive some 20,000 items is significant given the age and, thus, fragile condition of these one-of-a-kind pieces.

“The digital scanning also involves four other historical groups: St. John’s Lutheran Church, Eastern Cabarrus Historical Society in Mt. Pleasant, Cabarrus County Public Library and Kannapolis Historical Association,” Myers explains.

“If we do all the back work and organize it as a virtual museum by content, people can virtually visit a theme and the museum exhibit is brought to their screen,” Gonnerman says. “To help make sense of all that material, we’re going to organize archives using common themes. We’ll provide content, like a content card in a physical museum.”

“We’re in the midst of it,” Myers says. “Once that’s all back and you have the data, you can link a large portion of that so people can go in and do searches.”

While HCA would love to have more people physically visit the museum, Gonnerman realizes that’s not always possible. “People have time limitations. There’s no constraint of time with a virtual museum,” she says.

Those who do visit the Concord Museum right now will be viewing the Robert F. Phifer Collection. A Concord native – and a wealthy former farmer and cotton broker – Phifer moved to New York City when he was in his 30s and joined the select men’s art society, the Salmagundi Club.

Over the years, Phifer amassed an impressive art collection but worried about what would happen to it after he passed. Neither Concord nor Charlotte had an art museum at that time, but he was able to have a sampling of his collection shown at the 1927 State Fair via the North Carolina Art Society.

Phifer ended up leaving his art collection to the North Carolina Art Society, now the North Carolina Museum of Art and the first publicly funded state art museum in the U.S. Buried in Memorial Garden, on Spring Street in Concord, Phifer’s generosity has allowed the museum to buy hundreds of pieces over the years by renowned artists.

Now on display through July 14, and last viewed by the public in 1973, 14 of Phifer’s 19th and 20th century paintings have been loaned to the Concord Museum by the North Carolina Museum of Art.

“Staff can provide the back story if people visit in person. He (Phifer) gave 88 pieces to start with...and he’s buried right up the street,” Gonnerman says.

It’s probably safe to say that supporters of HCA and visitors to the Concord Museum view space as a legitimate concern. With so many pieces of history behind closed doors, it would be a coup to house everything under one, larger roof. Reverend Anthony speaks of that and other goals of HCA.

In the short-term, he says, “Creating a policy and procedure manual for the organization; obtaining an office for the executive director (Gonnerman currently works from home); expanding our staff to include an operations manager; identifying an individual who can provide curatorial expertise; pursuing the possibility of expanding the part-time director’s position to a full-time position; and identifying an area where the public can view articles and materials that have been scanned through our digital scanning project.”

In the long-term, the Reverend would like to: “Address some of the holes in our current collection. We specifically have a deficiency in our local African-American history. Establish a working relationship with other historical societies in neighboring cities; establish a permanent home for the Historic Cabarrus Association; increase our membership; and develop corporate sponsors for Historic Cabarrus Association projects.”

So, what can the public do for HCA? “Membership,” Myers says. “I think a challenge of any non-profit organization is to stay relevant and help people understand the importance. We need people to help maintain the history. If we stop caring for it…the mission statement of Historic Cabarrus Association is acquisition and preservation. It needs to be occurring right now, too. The ones who want to preserve and really want to work, there are volunteer opportunities available.”

The Concord Museum is open Tuesday through Friday, 10:00am to 4:00pm. For more information, call 704-920-2465 or visit its website: www.historiccabarrus.com.

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