The McCubbins Collection
Jo White Linn
Mame (Mary Louisa) Gaskill McCubbins was legend in her own time, one of that rare breed of women in an ancient Southern town, who, with her impeccable background, dared to be different three-quarters of a century ago. The beauty of her coloring, the grace of her carriage, the single-mindedness of her purpose, and the impact of her contribution to the genealogical world even in the 1930s and 1940s might have marked her for a certain immortality in the annals of the small North Carolina town of Salisbury. But the surge of interest in history and genealogy has carried her name wider in concentric circle growth until the whole genealogical world now places the name of "The McCubbins Collection" of Rowan County at the forefront of private collections now made available for public use.
"Miss Mame" never set out to be famous. Born in Salisbury 26 April 1874, she led an active life among the aristocratic set, traveled on the continent, was an accomplished pianist and seamstress, and was distinguished by her great beauty and innate dignity. She lived in a tree-shaded twelve-room house at 419 South Main Street, gingerbread Victorian with turrets and dormers and a spacious veranda. She lived there alone and unafraid for almost thirty years after the death of her husband on 14 January 1923 and the marriage of their only child, Annie Theresa (Mrs. Forrest James Allen).
She was a collector. She collected fine old furniture, fine china, family pictures, and hats--Merry Widow hats that were literally more than a yard wide, hats from the side saddle days, Gibson Girl hats, Madame Eugenie hats--all of which she would, from time to time, freshen up and wear quite successfully. And she lived in that happy time when homes had room for collections.
After the marriage of her daughter and the death of her husband, Mrs. McCubbins devoted herself to doing things that interested her, for her time was her own. She never knew what time it was and rarely what day of the week. Her clocks would stand silently unwound for months at a time. She refused to have a telephone. On occasion she would walk, exquisitely groomed, carrying her black umbrella, the five blocks to the courthouse, only to find it closed for the Sabbath. She didn't like small talk; tactfully and tolerantly, she said what she thought. She didn't take a daily newspaper, because she wasn't interested in murder or burglary--or in what was happening currently.
What she was interested in was the family history of the original Rowan County--this innate collector with her fine-turned mind, her appreciation of quality, her feel for the past. Members of established families in the Old South have always known how people were connected and among which families certain traits can be expected to appear. The Ramsays, for example, were always known for their staunch dependability, the Kirks for the choleric dispositions, the Hambleys for their generosity, the Linns for their rectitude, the Grahams for their progressive farming methods, and the Busbys for their exceptional brilliance. Intermarriages among these old families produced the expected combinations of family traits and were remarked upon, and everyone knew not only what to expect from genetic mixtures but the source of certain traits for several generations back. Having heard this sort of conversation at her parents' knees, Mamie McCubbins could easily in later years trace lineages of older families almost through osmosis. Additionally, her husband, James Frank McCubbins, served as Rowan County's Clerk of Court for twenty years; his conversation about the probate records of Rowan county acquainted his wife with a further tool for research. And then circumstances intervened to provide experience in working with original documents.
During the Great Depression, as part of the WPA, positions were provided for people in reduced circumstances who could transcribe tombstone legends in old cemeteries and work with early records in the office of the Register of Deeds. Mrs. McCubbins availed herself of the opportunity to provide for herself in this manner and somewhere along the line conceived the idea of writing a book that would show the connections of all the old families of the original Rowan County, an area now encompassing twenty-six North Carolina Counties and parts of Tennessee. It was an ambitious undertaking, but "Miss Mame" had the time.
Undeterred by her lack of knowledge of early German, she set out to chronicle all the early Rowan lineages, not just those of the upper class and those of the English and Scots-Irish. And there was no type of original source material she did not examine and transcribe: session records from early churches, deeds, wills, minutes of the Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, family Bibles, letters, diaries, pictures. She interviewed hundreds of elderly people who in the early 1900s could describe family configurations four and five generations back from memory and word-of-mouth history. She captured oral tradition along with the recorded sources. She corresponded with people all over the world about the lineages on which she was working. She was stimulated by her correspondence with other women doing the same sort of work she was, one being Dr. Adelaide Fries of Winston-Salem who was translating and transcribing and preparing for publication The Records of the Moravians in North Carolina.
Mrs. McCubbins dutifully recorded her findings. Primarily, she typed her notes on pieces of paper 51/2 x 81/2 inches, devoting a half sheet, for example, in random order, to the land transactions of a certain individual. Legal-sized sheets were sometimes ascribed to certain individuals or families, the type crowded on both sides of the paper and consuming the margin, with overlays in ink of maps and charts of descent. The b on her typing machine was defective for a certain period. Because of the different colors of typing ribbon, one realizes these notes were added to as further information was found, and there is no chronological order. Very few lineages are worked out, but the raw data is there. The notes were written on the backs of envelopes, on blank checks, on bank deposit slips, and on political circulars--whatever scrap of paper was at hand. And the notes were filed in boxes--handkerchief boxes, stocking boxes, stationery boxes, candy boxes, big boxes, little boxes--all with notes on the sides to identify the contents.
Additionally, she copied lineages from DAR papers and from published family histories and early county histories. She saved clippings and pamphlets on North Carolina families.
And she had some seventy-three alphabetized notebooks containing approximately 100 closely written pages each. There were, for instance, typed lists of Confederate soldiers, typed lists of tax districts for the 1760s, and lists of Loyalists whose property was confiscated.
There was also her collection of published books, the margins of which were covered in her distinctive handwriting with other connections of the lineages mentioned.
Regrettably, when Mrs. McCubbins' health failed in the early 1950s, she was still in the note-taking stage of her book, never having progressed to the point of compiling the lineages. But the notes are amazingly accurate, those transcriptions and abstracts of the court records. And many of the tombstones she copied are no longer standing. The old people she interviewed would have carried their knowledge of the earlier generations of their families with them to the tomb, had she not questioned them and carefully and precisely transcribed her notes.
When she died on 18 August 1954 at Mt. Pleasant, N.C., at the age of eighty, having lost her home just a few years earlier, youthfully alert and exuberant to the end, she left a veritable mountain of material. Her friend, Mrs. W.H. Hambley, herself a writer, suggested that her notes and books be given to the Rowan Public Library, where Miss Edith Clark, the director and a history and genealogy buff, would make certain they were preserved. A small truck was dispatched and returned to the library full.
During the ensuing months, the library staff began to sort and separate the papers, many of which were jumbled on the truck, some of which blew off. When the magnitude of the work of separating and filing the papers dealing with 8,000 surnames was finally acknowledged, it was William E. Henessee, local heraldic artist, whose suggestion to Miss Clark resulted in an enquiry to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The branch of the church devoted to genealogical research responded with great enthusiasm and obtained special help for sorting, filing, and indexing the papers here for the privilege of microfilming the material, a task completed in 1956. James M. Ray, field representative of the LDS Genealogical Society, microfilmed the more than 150,000 different pieces of genealogical material in the collection. The microfilm of the original collection is available in many genealogical libraries today.
Source: Excerpt of an article in the Rowan County Register, volume 1, number 1, February 1986.