Remembering our history — birthday card and apple trees

Jan. 16, 2014 @ 12:32 PM

H.G. Jones knows how to put a mark on important historical events. He spent a lifetime doing it for others, serving as curator of the North Carolina Collection at UNC-Chapel Hill for many years. Before that he was director of N.C. Department of Archives and History.
A recent day at Galloway Ridge in Fearrington Village marked another important event, his 90th birthday. Not content to celebrate only with his friends, he joined with two fellow Galloway residents, Lee Stillman, who also became 90 this month, and Ted Reyling, who became 95.
Their friends and families packed the largest room at Galloway Ridge.
One of Jones’ friends, Fannie Memory Mitchell, had a birthday card for Jones, the same one he sent her on her 89th birthday on Jan. 21 of last year. This card, now well worn and stained, has been going back and forth between Jones and Mitchell for about 50 years.
Jones knows how to make history interesting for the rest of us. His “North Carolina Illustrated, 1524-1984,” though out of print, is still my favorite place to go to get the feel for our state’s rich history. For many years he wrote a popular column distributed by the Associated Press about interesting historical events and people. Some columns were collected and published under the title, “Scoundrels, Rogues and Heroes of the Old North State.” The book featured stories of Babe Ruth’s first home run as a professional; Chang and Eng Bunker, the Siamese twins who married Surry County women and produced 22 children; and Anne Bonny and Mary Read, pirates who pretended to be men until they were caught and sentenced to be hanged, ultimately avoiding the gallows when the authorities learned they were pregnant.
Jones’ accessible and entertaining history made him a popular speaker across the state. When people offered payment for his talks, Jones refused. As an employee of the state and the university, he said, “such visits were a part of my job. But word got around that I would accept an apple pie. And most of the groups I spoke to would give me one.”
However, when he went to Hyde County to talk about the history of Lake Mattamuskeet, Jones was surprised when, after his talk, nobody presented him with the traditional apple pie.
A few days later, a Mattamuskeet Apple sapling arrived and was planted in his front yard at his home in Chapel Hill across the street from my house.
Each fall, I would steal a few apples from that tree, make a cobbler, and share it with Jones. It was my celebration of the tradition of public service that his career symbolizes.
Unfortunately, the folks who bought Jones’ home cut down the Mattamuskeet tree before they learned of its history.
But all is not lost. A shoot has grown out from the stump of the old tree. Also, former Chapel Hillians Clare and Walter Baum have planted in my yard a Mattamuskeet tree from their orchard in Eastern North Carolina.
Finally, at the recent birthday party, Jones reminded me that Pittsboro apple expert Lee Calhoun took a cutting from Jones’s tree, grafted it to strong root stock, and planted it outside Jones’s residence at Galloway Ridge. .
“It had five or six good apples this fall,” Jones told me. “Not enough yet for you to go stealing them again.”
But plenty enough to mark H.G. Jones’ historic contributions.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. For information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at www.unctv.org/ncbookwatch. Martin’s regular weekly column appears on the Herald-Sun’s editorial pages on Wednesdays and on line at http://www.heraldsun.com/opinion/opinioncolumnists/martin.