Marilyn McCluen

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Before J.C. Parker became the county historian, it was Marilyn McCluen's job to answer the numerous letters persons in her position receive. But McCluen's delvings into Roane County history years before she was named to the post. Recently she recalled the time she, Willis Hutcherson, now deceased, and Mabel Thornton became interested in the preservation of the county records. The three women toured the second floor of the old Courthouse one day, where they discovered years and years' worth of records. That was in 1965: for virtually the past 100 years, records that overflowed from the various county officers had been deposited upstairs. The storage facility left much to be desired, McCluen remembers. "Those records were in the most deplorable condition," she said, "They were heaped loosely in the floor, much as if they were ready for a bonfire. Wearing cheesecloth over our noses, we separated the records from the dead birds and whiskey bottles, and literally shoveled them into boxes," she said. For the next four years, McCluen, Hutcherson, and Thornton sorted through the records, and organized a good portion of them. In 1969, when the state legislature authorized Tennessee's counties to appoint official historians, McCluen was the logical choice. Her work as historian increased after she was named to the post. McCluen now served as the liaison between the county and the Tennessee Historical Commission. In addition, she acted as the local supervisor of various state projects. McCluen immersed herself in her work. "You don't get these things done by sitting in Roane County," as she puts it. "I traveled back and forth to Nashville and made friends with the people there." Partly because of those relationships, McCluen, was able to convince state officials to conduct their first historical sites survey in Roane County. Visiting here, photographing the buildings that might qualify for the National Register of Historical Sites. Ultimately, five Roane County sites--including the old Courthouse, Southwest Point, and the Harriman Temperance Building--were named to the national list. The remaining structures were named to the state register, after which McCluen recorded histories of each. Since that time, the number of state-recognized structures in Roane County has grown from 26 to about 49, she says. In the 11 years since the record-filing began, McCluen and her two friends were able to clean the county records and process them chronologically. Because the pre-Civil War Courthouse has never burned or been otherwise destructed, the records dated back to a surprisingly early date--1801, the year Roane County was established. Working together in a room above the Kingston Bank & Trust, McCluen, Hutcherson, and Thornton compiled five books pertaining to Roane records. Among those published was an Index of real estate transactions from 1801-1900, a chronology of pioneers in Roane County, and a record of marriage licenses from 1801-1855. The state Library and Archives Commission aided their endeavor by laminating and rebounding the books at cost. The Commission also laminated the County Court's minute books and part of the deed books, again at cost. The books were printed at the First Christian Church of Rockwood, where McCluen is a member. Meanwhile, the women had founded the Roane County Historical Society in 1969, shortly after McCluen was appointed historian. The organization sponsored a six-page monthly newsletter, which was written and edited by McCluen and Hutcherson. In 1975, in an effort to save the old Courthouse, the Historical Society established an organization branch entitled the Roane County Heritage Commission. By working closely with the County Court, the Commission's purpose was to supervise the Courthouse's restoration. A year later Hutcherson died, and shortly afterward, McCluen's husband, former Criminal Court Judge L.G. McCluen, became seriously ill. McCluen dropped her work, and relinquished her title as county historian to Parker. The publication of the Historical Society's newsletter came to an abrupt end that year, McCluen says, and its cessation caused a dormancy in the Society. Although the Society still exists, the Heritage Commission is now the county's only active historical group, she said. Roane County is lucky, McCluen says, because of the vast number of records that have been preserved. "Roane County is so rich," she said. "We were sitting on the main road west. Judging by the number of letters I get, everybody west of here must have had ancestors who came through this area." Not all the letters addressed to her are answered these days. In the last few years, McCluen, who resides with her husband and mother in a secluded area in Eagle Furnace, has directed her historical interests toward her own family. Her mother was part of Roane County's earliest settlers, she has discovered. "It's a fascinating hobby," she says. "There are people who read mystery stories by the dozens. Family research is the greatest mystery story of them all."

Written by Carol Batey, and appeared in The Roane County News, Wednesday, 7 May 1980.