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Published: Jul 24, 2007 07:55 PM
Modified: Jul 24, 2007 07:55 PM

Minding the museum
From moonshine to movie houses, museum director mines hidden corners of Orange County.
The Orange County Historical Museum features an organ that was used for worship services by the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church and built in 1831.
Staff Photo by Leslie Barbour
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Upcoming events at the Orange County Historical Museum, 201 N. Churton St., Hillsborough.

  • July: Art Exhibit by Brydie Palmore
  • July 27: Last Friday -- Watermelon night. 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
  • Aug. 1-31: Art Exhibit by Barbara Ziff
  • Aug. 31: Last Friday -- Back to School...Way Back. 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
  • Sept. 1-30: Art Exhibit by Gunnells, Henkels, Jones and Lutz
  • Sept. 8: Felicity Day 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Sept. 28: Exhibit opening for Now Showing: At the Movies in Hillsborough. 6 p.m. - 9 p.m.
  • Oct. 26: Last Friday --Haunted Halloween. 6 p.m.-9 p.m.
  • Nov. 10: Golden Anniversary -- 50 years of the Orange County Historical Museum. 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
  • Dec. 2: Christmas Candlelight Tour. 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.
  • More Weekend
    A day to play
    You be the judge
    Improv marathon to benefit YMCA
    Chinese calligraphy interpreted in dance, art
    The world comes to Carrboro
    HILLSBOROUGH -- Did you know there used to be a public swimming pool on Old Pittsboro Road in Carrboro? That there were two early-20th century movie theaters in downtown Hillsborough? That almost any little creek or stream in Orange County would have once been home to a moonshine still?

    Jennifer Koach does.

    Koach, 30, is the director of the Orange County Historical Museum in downtown Hillsborough. For the past three years she's made it her business to learn about the hidden corners of our history.

    "Every day I learn something new," said Koach, a petite brunette.

    Right now she's excited about an upcoming exhibit on Hillsborough's old movie theaters: the Osbunn on West King Street and the Hollywood on South Nash street.

    The theaters were built in the early 1900s and gone by the early 1960s.

    It's hard to find artifacts from places like the movie theaters, or local textile mills, Koach says, because people don't think to save them.

    "Sometimes people overlook their more recent history," she said.

    Koach discovered the joys of history in her 10th-grade A.P. European history class in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Her teacher often had the students dress up in period costumes and recreate pivotal historic scenes from a modern perspective.

    "It was great; we stopped World War II from happening," she said.

    That's when she decided to pursue a career in history instead of following in her father's footsteps to become a lawyer.

    "My father to this day is unhappy about that!" she said, laughing.

    But after graduating from the University of Richmond with a bachelor's degree in history she discovered that jobs weren't so easy to come by.

    So she moved back to Ohio and got a job in a bank's collection department, calling up debtors to get them to pay.

    "It wasn't anything like I wanted to do," she said.

    Still, it was a stable, well-paying job, so she stayed on for three years before deciding to go to grad school.

    She received a master's degree in public history from N.C. State University and began her current job shortly after graduation.

    Her favorite part of the job is leading student tours. The boys love the Civil War gun collections, she said, and everyone enjoys the make-your-own quilt project designed to teach kids about life in a pre-mechanical age.

    People always ask Koach about local Civil War battles, perhaps wanting to see whether they should be digging for musket balls in their backyards.

    "I think people are disappointed to find out that our main Civil War thing was a surrender, not a battle," she said.

    That surrender was a doozy though -- after wintering in Hillsborough, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston gave up 90,000 troops in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida to Union General William T. Sherman at Bennett Place in Durham, effectively ending the Civil War.

    There was even more action in Orange County during the Revolutionary War, when Hillsborough hosted the state legislature and the town bustled with lawyers and politicians.

    The museum was founded in 1957 and was originally located in the courthouse, until it was moved to the old town library on Churton Street in the early 1980s.

    Koach's favorite artifacts in the museum include an old nursing dress, sized to fit a tiny pre-Civil War woman, and a pipe organ that used to belong to the Presbyterian Church next door, with pieces dating to 1831.

    Her newest acquisition is a stitched sampler from 1830, bought at a local auction.

    "It's my prized possession right now," she said.

    The sampler was sewn by 12-year-old Margaret Stockard of Orange County, who stitched in the ABCs and a short poem: "Tis but a short uncertain space, allowed us here to live. Death unperceived comes apace and may no warning give."

    The words echo even more bittersweetly when the information plaque under the sampler is read -- Margaret Stockard died just 10 months after her 1849 marriage, probably of complications from childbirth.

    Though Koach tries to include information and artifacts from the whole county in her exhibits, Hillsborough often ends up as the main focus.

    Having been a small town since it was founded in the 1700s, it has a great deal of well-preserved history, she said.

    "If Hillsborough had grown like Chapel Hill grew, we wouldn't have this," she said.

    Contact staff writer Emily Matchar at 932-8742 or
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