For many months, Janice Willis Barnett searched for hidden treasure.
She drove along country roads, leafed through tattered scrapbooks, peered into dusty archival records. In just a few weeks, the precious objects she uncovered will surface again in a new book titled “Unicoi and Limestone Cove.”
Barnett’s pictorial history book is the first book to ever focus exclusively on those two Unicoi County communities, both rich in history and family heritage.
“Basically, nothing has been written about those two communities,” said Barnett, who compiled 230 historic photos for her 128-page book that will be published Nov. 30 by Charleston, S.C.-based Arcadia Publishing.
Barnett’s book will follow two other books – “Erwin and Unicoi County” and “Then & Now: Unicoi County” – published by Arcadia that have focused on local history.
In researching her book, Barnett said she initially relied heavily on an article written by Mrs. C.N. Wilcox that was published March 23, 1929, in the Johnson City Staff-News. It was, she said, “a treasure map of clues.”
“It was a very important thing to delve into the history of this part of the county,” Barnett said. “Unicoi and Limestone Cove haven’t really received the attention like the history of Erwin, or even the south end of the county, has.
“Unicoi and Limestone Cove don’t have a history like Jonesborough, for example. The history of these communities must be looked at in the context of a larger history of the area, the region and the country. Unicoi has its own coming-of-the-railroad story and little industrial boom. And this part of its history involves neighboring Limestone Cove.”
Barnett, whose roots are in the county’s south end of Spivey but has lived in Unicoi since 1988, said “the mountain people who have lived in Unicoi and Limestone Cove for generations have a story that’s worth telling, too.”
In fact, Barnett said, the story of Unicoi and Limestone Cove has an interesting connection to the industrial development around the region in the later part of the 19th century. Unicoi was laid out as a model town even before Erwin was, and businesses like the Unaka Iron Co. and the Unicoi Development Co. were set on making Unicoi into a bustling community.
“The railroad was there in 1888, and they hoped the railroad headquarters would be located there,” Barnett said. “A plat from 1907 shows the area around Massachusetts Avenue laid out with blocks and streets.”
In her book, divided into sections about family life, religion, education and community, Barnett brings into focus everything from hog killings and farm life to church picnics and school ballgames to the timber and ore operations supported by a mountain railroad.
As Barnett continued to research Unicoi and Limestone Cove, her “treasure map” led her to the Register of Deeds’ office at the Unicoi County Courthouse, where she uncovered how the “rich natural resources of Appalachia” were the reason that land speculators made their focus on the area.
“I spent hours and hours in (Register of Deeds) Debbie Tittle’s office looking at old deeds,” Barnett said. “I took the clue from Mrs. Wilcox’s article and put together what I could from that.”
After she had a better understanding of the history and development of the communities, Barnett faced the daunting task of collecting hundreds of historic photos from the families of Unicoi and Limestone Cove.
For months, Barnett, toting along a digital scanner, visited home after home in search of the photos that would make up her book.
“I spent really over a year interviewing people, as much as six hours at their homes, where people were kind enough to go through their albums and old pictures,” she said. “They fed me while I was there and treated me with such respect.
“That’s pretty much how I did it, going from one home to another, so that involved quite a lot of time building up trust among all these families. You just don’t go into Unicoi and say, ‘Give me your pictures,’ and then leave. You show them the respect they deserve.”
In the 1970s, Barnett studied oral history at East Tennessee State University, but she eventually earned a degree in accounting and made a career with numbers and not words.
“My heart was in Appalachian studies and writing,” she said, “but I needed to make a living.”
Barnett worked at Erwin National Bank before beginning a long accounting career at Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport. Her husband, Leo, has worked for 35 years at Erwin Utilities.
After leaving her accounting days behind in the mid-1990s, Barnett finally had a chance to pursue those dreams of writing about the “mountain people” of Appalachia. In addition to finding a home for her work in magazines and literary journals, she found a welcome home in the pages of The Erwin Record, as a features contributor and, for the past two years, a monthly columnist.
Still, her first book brought new challenges as she collected dozens of photographs and the stories behind them. First and foremost, she had to reduce the hours of interviews into 70-word cutlines for the 230 photos she finally chose for publication.
Two weeks ago, Barnett spent time making final corrections and additions before her book was scheduled for the printing press. While it was the conclusion of months of hard work, it was also the culmination of a lifetime’s respect for the mountain communities that make up Unicoi County.
“It took a lot of physical stamina to go out day after day and spend so much time at other people’s homes,” the 59-year-old Barnett said. “I made relationships with these people. It feels like I’ve become part of their families. They still call me, and I care about them.
“It was a very important thing, to delve into the history of this part of the county. … This is my gift to my community.”
Barnett’s book, “Unicoi and Limestone Cove,” will be published Nov. 30. Pre-orders are now being accepted at The Erwin Record. The book is $21.99 plus tax. To order a book, call 743-4112.