Gathering the Seed Corn: Archiving the Bill Dow Papers

Daryl Walker and Bill Dow with their dog Katie
Daryl Walker and Bill Dow with their dog Katie

My name is Biff Hollingsworth and I am the Collecting and Outreach Archivist for the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill. My main responsibility at the Southern is to curate new collections and projects, which means that I work on gathering historical documentation for the Collection from the people who create, collect or take care of these materials. I love my job because I enjoy the process of rediscovery of forgotten treasures and because I see how meaningful and cathartic the process can be for our donors and partners.

In 2014, I had the great pleasure of working with Daryl Walker at Ayrshire Farm in Pittsboro, N.C., to gather and archive the papers of her partner Bill Dow, a central figure in the history of the Appalachian Student Health Coalition.

My first visit to Ayrshire Farm was a beautiful, but windy and cold day in January. I remember it well. Daryl welcomed me to the beautiful passive solar home that she and Bill built, we ate homemade egg salad sandwiches, I made nice with Bill’s dog Katie, and we talked about Daryl’s strategy for keeping the deer from eating the tops off of the leeks that were finally breaking through the frozen ground.

Bill Dow looking over the terraced beds at Ayrshire Farm
Bill Dow looking over the terraced beds at Ayrshire Farm

We spent a quiet morning in the finished basement of the house looking through a set of boxes of Bill’s papers, mostly files relating to one of Bill’s other passions: his extensive genealogical research on the Dow and related families.

That afternoon Daryl showed me to Bill’s office in an old broken down farm trailer. I will say that every site or home visit that I make has its own unique challenges and rewards. There were many rewards that day! But the condition of the farm trailer was definitely the main challenge. Bill’s office had been sealed off, with a sheet of plywood over the door, for quite some time. The roof of the trailer had failed and was falling in at several places. When I looked up I could see clouds passing by, which reminded me of the presence of the archivist’s greatest enemy: moisture. Daryl mentioned something about a possum that had been found in the trailer. There were abandoned mouse nests, armies of silverfish, and plenty of dead spiders.

Dr. Tom John and Mary Ruth Martin look through Bill's papers in his farm trailer office
Tom John and Mary Ruth Martin sifting through Bill’s papers in his farm trailer office

But, I learned that I was not the first person to face this challenging environment. In late spring 2013, Daryl worked with Student Health Coalition alums Tom John, Lark Hayes and Mary Ruth Martin to unearth some historical Student Health Coalition materials from Bill Dow’s papers for use at a Coalition reunion in Tennessee. Here are a couple of photos that Lark shared with me.

Even working among the rubble that day, and on subsequent trips, I have earned a deep respect for Bill and his work. The amount of material in the trailer impressed upon me how busy he was and how many projects he must have juggled at any given time. It’s an odd way to come to know a person, by looking through the documentary remains of their existence. But one thing has become very clear to me about Bill Dow: he was a doer.

Tom John sorting through a stack of papers in Bill's farm trailer office
Tom John sorting through a stack of papers in Bill’s farm trailer office

We have now gathered about 18 file boxes of Bill Dow’s papers, which include files on early Student Health Coalition efforts and other rural health activities, documentation of his work to set up farmer’s markets in Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina, Georgia and other states, materials relating to the construction of solar greenhouses, files on waste management and pesticides, records of Bill Dow’s service on the Chatham County (N.C.) Planning Board, papers relating to local agriculture and foodways, and many other topics. Over the coming weeks and months, we will share more discoveries from Bill’s collection, as we prepare the collection for use by researchers and the general public.

To me, Bill Dow’s papers are the seed corn for this archival partnership that we are proud to undertake with members of the Appalachian Student Health Coalition community. (Seed corn may be defined as the grain that is kept from a season’s harvest for use in planting crops for subsequent harvests, or more figuratively, it is something that is important because it is the starting point for the future). Archiving this collection is an important step and we hope it will yield many more bountiful seasons of interest and engagement with the pioneering work of the Coalition. 

1 thought on “Gathering the Seed Corn: Archiving the Bill Dow Papers”

  1. Jacquelyn Hall

    Biff, I’m so glad to hear that you have Bill’s papers. He was a friend of mine and a great person. I think there is a good book to be written about health care activism in Appalachia. I’ll share this post with UNC Ph.D.’s and Appalachian scholars Jessie Wilkerson and Kathy Newfont.

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