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Recent history for William Powell has involved interviews—a lot of them.

Dr. Powell's opus 

Why you should get in line for the region's hottest book

click to enlarge Yum-yum: Krispy Kreme is one entry in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina. - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNC PRESS

Recent history for William Powell has involved interviews—a lot of them.

"Almost constantly" was his two word answer when asked how often he's on the phone talking about the latest work he's edited, the 7-pound, 2-ounce Encyclopedia of North Carolina. The book sold out its first run of 15,000 copies Nov. 22, less than two weeks after its release, and the 87-year-old Powell, who admits to being a bit embarrassed by the success and attention, has been making the rounds to packed book signings.

Whether it is the large influx of curious non-natives or the appeal of a modern, comprehensive, coffee table behemoth of the Old North State, UNC Press, which published the book in conjunction with UNC Library, has a hit on its hands. The remaining copies from the first printing are available in stores and online, and a second run is due in February.

"It seems to have brought in a new audience," Powell says. "People who wouldn't have been interested before. I guess there was method in our madness."

Though he retired from teaching at Chapel Hill in 1986, Powell hasn't stopped researching and writing. Like it says on the back flap of the dust jacket, he's considered the state's premier historian. If you want to know why, turn back one more leaf and note the last page number: 1,314. A few more numbers: 2,100 entries; 350 photos, illustrations and maps; 550 contributors; and an extensive, 65-page index.

Though Powell's quick to give credit to associate editor Jay Mazzocchi and illustrations editor Jerry Cotton for keeping the project moving, the publication of the encyclopedia, he says, is a satisfying coda to a career that has produced more than 100 books.

Working out of four studies set aside in Davis Library, the Encyclopedia gelled in a six-year push to sort and edit the entries. The idea has been in Powell's head for decades, inspired, in part, when he was sorting through his lecture notes after retiring in 1986.

"I thought it would be a mistake to pack my notes away and forget about it," he says.

click to enlarge Vroom-Vroom: Richard Petty is one entry in the Encyclopedia of North Carolina. - PHOTO COURTESY OF UNC PRESS

He started developing criteria and compiling lists of possible entries and contributors, finishing his first proposed set of topics in 1991. Ten years later he had amassed 2,100 items.

It's no People's History, but the book does take advantage of more recent research as well as a more open approach to discussing historical events.

"We're more frank than we used to be," Powell says. There are not as many secrets."

The book doesn't ignore labor struggles—see "Task System," "Flying Squadrons," "Gastonia," "Marion" and "Highland Park"—or gloss over racial strife—see "Wilmington 10," "Radio Free Dixie," "Josephus Daniels" and "Abraham Galloway."

The glowing portraits of the Tar Heel aristocracy you might remember from grade school have a little less veneer.

"People will talk about things they used to not talk about, like drunkenness, sex and stupidity," Powell says.

"It's a remarkable book," says Alex Stoesen, professor emeritus of history at Guilford College. The size of the work, the depth of the entries and that they're not in the typical dry, dictionary form sets the work apart, he says. "It'll be the envy of a lot of other states."

Stoesen was among the early group of historians who started getting proposed lists of subjects and invitations to write entries from Powell. In all, Stoesen contributed 45 entries, 23 of which made it into the text. Stoesen said he thought the first list of subjects Powell sent out was ambitious, then the second one came.

"The lists just kept getting longer and longer," he says. Small wonder it was so many years in the making. "It might have taken 15 years, but it was worth it," Stoesen says.

A brief owner's manual

This is not a book you read so much as mine. It's in alphabetical order—"Aberdeen & Rockfish Railroad Company" to "Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation"—something Powell says he insisted on when it was suggested it be organized topically.

The A to Z format works—any work this size would have been tough to navigate otherwise and would have defeated what the editor says is the chief aim of the work: to answer questions.

Entries range from several hundred words to a few thousand. Don't expect an exhaustive look at each subject, and try to fight off the impulse to scan through everything you know about first. This book is about discovery, and the best way to get used to it is to just start flipping through it—David Stick on "Fishing Camps," the story of "Hot Springs," "Naval Stores" and the turpentine trade, "Federalist Party," Bland Simpson on the "Great Dismal Swamp."

Once you're inside you can follow the bread crumbs—"Footpath," "Great Trading Path," "Occaneechi"—or keep flipping.

Most major cities are represented, but if you're looking for your hometown the best bet is in the county listing or, if you have an unusual attraction ("Andrews Geyser"), a strange geological formation ("Judaculla Rock"), or an old legend or tradition ("Harkers Island Boats"), try those, too.

The human population of the book—"Joseph C. Abbott" to "Count von Zinzendorf"—is by far the largest, but there's a healthy share of rare flora, gemstones and famous horses.

Like the bulk of North Carolina histories, the book is stuffed with Revolutionary and Civil War battles. And, former governors get the usual coverage: "Gov. O. Max Gardner" appears in 15 listings, while "Ava," "Faye" and "Jim Gardner" each appear only once.

Because most of the contributors to the book have their specialties, you might have to look around a bit to get the complete picture on something. The section called "Recording," for instance, has a pretty detailed look at early 20th-century artists and a solid rundown of beach music hits. But there's only brief mention of anything post-1970. David Menconi fills in the blanks several pages later under "Rock Music."

  • Recent history for William Powell has involved interviews—a lot of them.

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