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Volunteers play vital role


Associate Editor

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“For us, the volunteers are invaluable,” said Washington County Archivist Ned Irwin on a recent afternoon. Three individuals were working on records at the county facility located at 103 West Main Street in Jonesborough.  “They allow me and Donna [Briggs, Archive Assistant] to accomplish more than we could do alone.”


The President of the Friends of the Archives, Betty Jane Hylton, was working on “Judicial Loose Records” from 1815 when asked to describe why she started volunteering and the process she went through in acquiring her expertise in records preservation.

She said family history curiosity began by talking with her Grandfather William Usary. “He told stories about our family.  Then I got interested in how everyone was related.”   

Now a State of Tennessee Certified Archives Manager, Hylton said, “I had a real good history teacher in high school, Cecil Whitlock.

“I grew up in Broylesville where I was in the middle of history. Later, a noted librarian and genealogist employed at East Tennessee State University, Pollyanna Creekmore, noticed that I was checking out all the library’s books on genealogy.  She got a group of us together to talk about genealogy.  At our first session, she said, ‘bring a friend with you to our next month’s meeting.’”

These informal get-togethers became the impetus for organizing in October 1971 The Watauga Association of Genealogists – Northeast Tennessee (WAGS).  By the Spring-Summer of 1972, the group was publishing a genealogical bulletin.  Today, the group meets the first Tuesday night of the month at the Johnson City Public Library.

Ann Gentry and Louise Beasley helped get the organization started along with Eddie Walker who became the Cocke County Historian. When Dr. Graham Landrum of King College joined the group WAGS began to have programs.

In researching her own personal genealogy, Hylton uses a computer. Her database collections began in the 1990s.

“Every night I would spend a little time looking at material on the Internet,” Hylton said.  “If something caught my eye as useful, I sent it on to members.”

At this point, “I tried to tell everybody that we (members of WAGS) were interested in a county archive. Part of the reason for my interest resulted from a trip down to the County Court Clerk’s Office to find out information about cemeteries.”  Hylton joined with Archive Assistant Briggs in listing people buried in county cemeteries. She indexed Washington County while Briggs concentrated on Sullivan County.    

She met Margaret Hougland at a Mac computer users group meeting. A computer expert, Hougland helped with the cemetery project which continues to this day under the title of “Washington County TNGenWeb.”  Hougland is also a volunteer in the archives.

Hylton has attended conferences of the  National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies.   She has also attended several sessions of the North Florida Genealogical Conference. The friends’ president is proud of “Working with the county’s records before the archives opened. I helped with the archives’ inventory and moved records from the Court House to the Archives Main Street location.”

She has discovered Washington County records about her own family dating back to the 1700s. Hylton said “People are really going to be surprised when all of these records get organized.”


Volunteer Georgia Greer was spending the day working on marriage license records. The county archive has a total of 35,596, by exact count, according to Archive Assistant Briggs. Greer worked with Archivist Irwin at the East Tennessee State University Archives of Appalachia.  She was an ETSU employee for 25 years.  She originally was hired after explaining she knew how to operate a “new type of typewriter” the school had acquired.

Now she is working on the last six boxes of the marriage records, typing up alphabetical indexing records. In the process, she has “discovered my grandfather’s first wife. I did not know when he got married. I got very excited when I found her maiden name of ‘Shelton’ in the 1914 records.”

Greer said she had excellent instruction in the maintaining of archival material from Archivist Irwin and former department head Norma Myers.

“I was considered a typist,” she said.  “Then one day, Norma said, ‘You are going to have to use a computer.’”

Greer said now she has over 5,000 names in her personal genealogical database. “I did a book with cousins. We traced our family from Virginia to Texas and then all over the United States, naming our volume ‘Reflections of a Housewright Journey.’

“We are getting ready to re-issue and update the book.  There are seven brothers that form the beginning of our research – and we will add to each of their family lines.”


While Hylton was working on 1815 records, Janette Guinn, a retired teacher, was erasing grime from a series of 1814 “Loose Judicial Records.” She said, “I have been cleaning records. A few records have mold on them. The records are dirty because they were exposed to coal dust. In pioneer times, there was smoke everywhere.

“After I clean the records, I put each case in a folder identified by the names of plaintiff and defendant case numbers. I then place them in file boxes in alphabetical order. Reading various student handwriting for 35 years helps me decipher some of this old handwriting in these documents.

“I got involved with genealogy at a young age with help from my aunt who was a librarian and school teacher. I became a math and science teacher in the county, with pupils like Jimmy Neil Smith (founder of Storytelling) Joe Spiker (head docent at the Chester Inn Museum directly across the street from the Archive) and the father and his brothers of Anne G’Fellers Mason (Heritage Alliance playwright).”

Guinn  has a graduate degree from ETSU, a masters degree from Tusculum and an EdS degree from Lincoln Memorial University.  She is a member of the Watauga Association of Genealogists – Northeast Tennessee, National Genealogical Society and the Federation of Genealogical Societies.

She has known Betty Jane Hylton all of her life. They were classmates at Washington College for 12 years. She taught for 35 years in the Washington County School System, including a position at Jonesborough High School.

“By the time I retired,” she said, “I was teaching the grandchildren of my first students. I taught at Jonesborough High and then Middle School, both held in the same school building.

“I knew that Betty Jane had been helping with the Archive. I joined WAGS in 2009 and had assisted her with projects in the past.  In 2017, I started helping with wills and began making some notes. I’m related to Jacob Brown the Wagonmaker and all the Broyles. I’ve enjoyed getting into family references and also to those of some of my neighbors. I’ve been working with Jewell Susong. If I found a reference where I did not know the family, she knew them.”

Guinn has discovered that she is also related to Betty Jane through the Snapps who emigrated from Germany in 1733.

“One will I discovered I found very interesting. It was Rhea Wells will, the children’s author who helped fund the Washington County /Jonesborough Library.”

Guinn said she did not know she was related to the Henleys until just a few years ago. “They came to Washington County at Clark’s Creek in 1793. My sons are related to the Tiptons and to John Sevier. That means there is always a conflict going on.”

Guinn has also found reading lawsuit records most interesting. “Some of the lawsuits go on for years and years,” she said.

Guinn now lives in Johnson City but her home place is some two miles from Washington College. She is kin to many of the folks in that area of Washington County.

She said, “I wished I had listened more to the history of Washington College from the staff. Much of what they told us went in one ear and out the other.”   

She also has Civil War ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Records during that period of time are yet to be fully organized at the Archive

Besides the three individuals mentioned in this story, other volunteers at the archives are Margaret Hougland, Shirley Hinds, Kari Rouche, Lisa Shockley and Kyle Johnson.