Historic Walking Tour of Pittsboro

by Ben Rappaport

This story originally appeared in the Chatham News + Record

PITTSBORO — Chatham School of Science & Engineering (“CSSE”) history teacher Anna Blackwell began the spring semester with a challenge to her 9th and 10th grade students: to learn about the history of the place where they lived.

She wanted them to make the historical sites of Chatham County — places they passed every day without realizing their significance — come alive.

The school encourages project-based learning with the end goal of those projects being public-facing. That challenge and academic philosophy were the impetus for an interactive walking tour of downtown Pittsboro created by the students.

“There’s a lot of pressure on them and me to make sure we get this right,” Blackwell said. “It’s going to be visible by the students, their parents, but mostly it’s for the community and visitors to the community to learn more about our town.”

Six Historical Buildings Featured

The walking tour will involve six of the most prominent historical buildings in downtown Pittsboro: the Historic Courthouse, the Lewis Freeman House, the Mathiesen Clinic, the Yellow House, the Manly Law Office and the Blair Hotel Building. Students in Blackwell’s class were split into groups of two or three and tasked with creating a written brief about the history of each site and a slideshow video with audiovisual aspects.

Visitors to the tour can get maps from the Welcome Center at 37 Hillsboro Street. Each site will then have a QR code attached to it and will include student-created visuals and written histories.

Each student group dug through historical archives from the library and met with property owners of their sites to learn more about the complex history.

The idea to engage in such a community-focused project came when a parent from CSSE approached Blackwell with a way to connect students with the town of Pittsboro. That parent was Maria Parker-Lewis, president of Main Street Pittsboro — an organization aimed at improving the vitality of the historic downtown area. Parker-Lewis originally pitched the idea in the spring of 2019, but the project was delayed due to the pandemic.

“This idea has been a long time coming and I’m very excited to see it finally come to fruition,” Parker-Lewis said. “I’ve been thrilled with how into it the students have gotten and it’s really cool how it’s all coming together.”

Parker-Lewis said she hopes the walking tour will become a permanent fixture here, adding that projects like these add depth and richness to Pittsboro’s downtown area.

This Community Effort Includes Local Artists

The community engagement with the project goes beyond just Parker-Lewis. The walking tour is also partnering with the Chatham County Historical Association — an organization sharing the history of Chatham County through exhibits, tours and outreach programs and located inside the Historic Courthouse downtown.

The videos for each site are also accompanied by music composed and mastered by local musicians. One of those musicians is John Wilson who said he jumped at the opportunity to help the students because it combined his love of local history and music composition.

“This is such a cool way for these kids to keep our history living,” Wilson said. “Music and history are the things that transcend time so getting to make the soundtrack with these kids has been a blessing.”

Wilson collaborated closely with the students of each group to ensure each group’s song had the rhythm and style of the building. For example, students in charge of researching the Manly Law Office found a piece of music composed for Governor Charles Manly when he was running for office in the 1840s called “Manly’s Quick Step.” They then gave the piece to Wilson, who recreated the song with his band.

“We tried to tap into that old feeling through the songs,” Wilson said.

Other musicians also helped along the way, including Ruth Slates, who composed the song to be used at the Yellow House. Her song got added to the project after Wilson saw her perform it at a talent show in Slates’ retirement home.

“As soon as I heard it, I just knew it would fit perfectly,” Wilson said. “The smile on Ruth’s face when I asked her to be part of this was just priceless. That’s really what it’s all about.”

With the backing of musicians, local tourism leaders and their teacher, the students dove headfirst into the research process. By and large, students from Blackwell’s class said they found the project challenging, yet rewarding.

Locals are an Invaluable Source 

For example, sophomore Nayeli Martinez has been researching the Historic Courthouse. She said while there’s a lot of information available about the courthouse, it’s been a challenge to find new information to make the description and video interesting.

“The further we dug into it, it was difficult to find things that aren’t repetitive,” Martinez said. “We really had to start talking to people to find the information we were looking for.”

Her partner on the research, Jordan Taylor, echoed that sentiment. Taylor said she was surprised by how helpful people from the community were willing to be and how much knowledge was held by locals.

“We thought it would be simple — get it and go,” Taylor said. “But soon, the people provided us with all this in-depth information and stories about the courthouse we couldn’t find anywhere else.”

There seemed to be a widespread consensus among Blackwell’s students — the community members and property owners gave the most fascinating pieces of information. Students said in a small, rural county like Chatham, there are limited resources available online about local history. So, talking to people who know the land is often the next best thing, and also the most rewarding.

Freshman Mattie Buckner, who is researching the Mathiesen Clinic, said the work helped her feel like part of the community because she came to realize Chatham County has a deep history.

“People will get to see Chatham County and Pittsboro isn’t sleepy,” Buckner said. “They’ll get to see Pittsboro is rich in history. It’s kind of cool to be part of something that people are going to see and we will have made it.”

Blackwell said the students are putting the finishing touches on the walking tour project as the semester comes to a close. She hopes the combination of written, audio and visual elements will be available to the public at each historic site by the end of June.

Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at brappaport@chathamnr.com or @b_rappaport.

The banner photo depicts (l to r) the Blair Hotel Building, Historic Chatham County Courthouse, Manly Law Office, and the Lewis Freeman House

2022-06-03T17:12:06-04:00June 3rd, 2022|

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