Laura Dean Bennett
Readers of The Pocahontas Times probably have a pretty good idea how important history is to those who call Pocahontas County home.
Whenever one thinks of what they would want to save from a house fire – besides, of course, family and pets – we probably often share the same answer with others – our family photos, our important documents, the family Bible and the shoeboxes full of family history.
Because family history means so much.
And when you add together the histories of the hundreds of families who have, for two hundred years, made this community what it is… it’s a lot of history to save.
For over a decade, Preserving Pocahontas has been doing just that.
Roberta Jo (B.J.) Sharp-Gudmundsson is the Historic Records Preservation Officer. She has deep roots in Pocahontas County. Her mother was Mary Jo Pierson Sharp, a descendant of the McComb family of Huntersville. Her father was Bob Sharp, who owned Wilbur Sharp & Son Men’s Wear. Her grandfather, Wilbur, owned and operated the first pool hall in Marlinton.
Building on the past, Gudmundsson has been gathering, copying and cataloguing our county’s precious history – one photo, one document, one collection at a time.
And it may have made her a little philosophical.
“When you start talking to someone about their life and their family – it’s like they’re letting you in a door – into their home,” Gudmundsson said.
“It’s an honor to be trusted this way.”
She’s been at the helm of Preserving Pocahontas for 12 years, since the inception of the non-profit organization.
She also sits on Marlinton’s Town Council as town recorder.
Gudmundsson came to the position with 15 years of experience interviewing interesting people and producing documentary films, so digitizing documents was nothing new to her.
Gudmundsson’s has about 30 documentary films to her credit – some for the Shepherd Center in Lewisburg and some, working with one of Pocahontas County’s well-known photographer, Doug Chadwick.
Gudmundsson was honored to be named WV Filmmaker of the Year in 2005 for the documentary about Cal Price and The Pocahontas Times entitled, “30.”
“The film making prepared me for the Preserving Pocahontas work – it all ties together,” Gudmundsson said.
“It’s all about preserving history.
“Getting out there and into people’s lives – and finding out what they are all about and how to best tell their stories,” she explained.
Soon after Preserving Pocahontas was formed, it joined with many other county organizations, agencies and individuals to bring the Smithsonian exhibit, “The Way We Worked” to Pocahontas County.
“The Way We Worked” was a national project mounted by the Smithsonian to document the histories of hard-working Americans.
The Smithsonian Institute chose a handful of locales in a few states for the travelling exhibit and Pocahontas County was one of them. The exhibit’s visit was co-sponsored by West Virginia Humanities Council.
“I heard that one of the reasons Pocahontas County was chosen to get the exhibit was because of the great degree of local interest,” Gudmundsson recalled. “So many community members and organizations were eager to have it here and were quite willing to support the exhibit.
“This just goes to show the level of interest that we have in history around here,” she added.
There is also a board of directors who are dedicated to the mission of Preserving Pocahontas: Timothy VanReenen, President; Nancy McComb Smithson, Vice-President; Ruth Taylor, Secretary; Gail Hyer, Treasurer; William P. McNeel and Robert Sheets, but the everyday work is left to Gudmundsson.
“It’s really kind of just me,” she said. “I worked full-time for about five years then switched over to part-time. It can be a lot of work, but it’s really fascinating work.
“I think the best thing about Preserving Pocahontas is the people that I come in contact with,” she said with a smile. “They show me their pictures and the next thing you know, I’m getting to know them and their whole family.”
“Everybody thinks their story isn’t important to anyone except to themselves, but that’s so not true!
“Each story combines with everyone else’s story to form a tapestry, which is bigger than any one of us, but includes all of us,” Gudmundsson said.
“That’s what happens with Preserving Pocahontas.
“Our history – photos, documents, letters and other records – is so often found tucked in the pages of a family bible, or in boxes in the attic or the barn.
“People find these treasures and don’t know what to do with them.
“Their kids may not be interested in them – heck, they may not even want the family china,” Gudmundsson said, laughing a sad laugh and shaking her head.
So, rather than letting these precious bits of our history get away from us, Preserving Pocahontas provides a way to save it for future generations.
Besides the fact that having all these old documents and photos scanned keeps them safe in a permanent historical record, there are also personal benefits.
If something happens to the original documents, there’s always the scanned version as a backup.
For instance, the 1985 flood destroyed a lot of our history – precious family documents and photos, family bibles and all kinds of family records were lost.
With Preserving Pocahontas, those documents needn’t be lost.
Anyone can bring their paper documents, photos, audio files to be digitized or pages from books to Gudmundsson to be scanned and added to the Preserving Pocahontas collection.
Everything scanned and archived is recorded on a searchable database called Dublin Core Metadata, a program used internationally by archivists.
“We can pull out anything and everything about any topic by date, name, location, etc.” Gudmundsson explained.
The organization has established a mutually beneficial relationship with WVU.
“When I enter things into our digital online library – the same one that West Virginia University uses – with Dublin Core, we can send photos and my data base to WVU for instance, and we can have our records and photos uploaded to the Preserving Pocahontas website using their manpower.”
There’s a popular searchable archive collection for the Pocahontas County Historical Society within Preserving Pocahontas.
“So when the Pocahontas County River Trail people or the Convention and Visitors Bureau or anyone or any organization in the county, the state or the world needs records or photos for something they’re working on, we’ve got ‘em,” Gudmundsson smiled.
Gudmundsson, who is also the president of the Pearl Buck Foundation, is proud of the Pearl Buck collection of records in Preserving Pocahontas, which are invaluable part of our county’s and America’s history.
“To my knowledge, Preserving Pocahontas is the only private, non-profit, non-government entity like it in the state of West Virginia,” she added with pride.
Preserving Pocahontas is funded through the County Commission from an allotment from the Hotel/Motel tax, so all of the work belongs to the people of Pocahontas County.
“The people of Pocahontas County really care about our history, enough so that they have gone to the trouble of funding Preserving Pocahontas all these years,” she continued.
“We have a safety deposit box at City National Bank where all three archives: Preserving Pocahontas, Pearl Buck and the Historical Society, are backed up on hard drives, as are all of our digitized collections.
“The digital hard drives are preserved, no matter what.
“If the work has been interrupted, or if there’s a disaster, it’s all retrievable,” she explained.
Everything that people might need from Preserving Pocahontas is available online for free.
Those who may want particular images of specific documents in high resolution may have to pay a fee, as do those who want to reprint the image in a book, etc. which would be intended for sale.
“We go by all WVU guidelines, except we reduce the price they charge for things.
“WVU really sets the standards for West Virginia archives and archivists,” Gudmundsson said.
“We’re very lucky these days – we can reclaim so much history that might have been lost, and still will be lost, unless people share it with us so we can make a permanent record of it.”
Gudmundsson urges everyone to bring her those cardboard boxes of old records and family history.
Get out the old photo albums – don’t remove the pictures, that might ruin them – just leave them inside the album; they can be scanned just as they are.
And don’t forget the little gems tucked inside the pages of the family Bible.
You can loan the material and have it back after it’s been scanned, or you can donate it to Preserving Pocahontas.
“We’re caretakers of our county’s history – of the history of the families who founded and built our communities,” Gundmundsson said.
“Now we have a 200-year perspective on Pocahontas County’s history.
“Maybe as we celebrate the Bicentennial, we might want to look at preserving as much of our history as we can.”
Anyone interested in learning more about Preserving Pocahontas or perusing the archived photos and records can visit the digital library online at preservingpocahontas.org
Call Gudmundsson at 304-799-3989 if you have questions.
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Preserving Pocahontas is a private, non-profit organization whose purpose is the preservation of historical records and artifacts relating to the history of Pocahontas County, West Virginia.
It is exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the IRS code. As such, gifts to the organization are tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Preserving Pocahontas depends on the generous support of individuals, businesses, foundations and government agencies to locate and digitize historical collections for free public access.