Historian Bonnie Peters sees value in the past

Shannon CareyFeature, Fountain City

Bonnie Peters loves history, but for her it’s not a collection of dusty dates and trivia facts. It’s a tribute to family and friends, real people connected by bonds of land and kinship.

Peters lives in Fountain City in the home she and her late husband, Sam Peters, purchased in 1957. Adult daughter Sheri Hensley attended Central High School. But Bonnie is a native of Union County, just north on Highway 33. There, she grew up as Bonnie Heiskell, the youngest of 12 children, and she got her first brush with history when her brother Charles was working on a genealogy project in high school. Their mother asked Peters to help.

“That fascination stayed with me,” Peters said.

Her high school English teacher was the late Winnie Palmer McDonald, who was the Union County Historian at the time, and Peters contributed a photo and short story to her first volume of Union County history. When Peters went to work for TVA, Mrs. McDonald asked her to join her in her pursuit of Union County history after she retired. In 1990, 25 years later, Peters did just that.

“I had been retired about two months when she called in her cards,” Peters said.

The pair ran an ad in the local newspaper asking for tidbits of history to add to a book, and they rented a small storefront across the street from the Union County Courthouse. Work on their first book, “Our Union County Families,” began in earnest.

“People brought things by the sackful for us to borrow,” Peters said. “Pictures and newspaper clippings, but we also recorded oral history. We knew we needed another volume.”

The next book, “Union County Faces of War,” explored Union Countians in the military from the Revolutionary War to Desert Storm. But, as Mrs. McDonald’s health began to falter, Peters took up the mantle of Union County Historian and continued their work with “Union County Schoolday Memories,” and five more books of collected history, stories and personalities. Her latest book, “More Tales from the Hills and Hollows of East Tennessee,” has just been published and features a preface by well-known local columnist Sam Venable. Daughter Sheri Hensley drew the cover illustration.

And the tales run the gamut of East Tennessee experience. The tragic story of wandering woman Rindy Bailey is one Peters has followed all her life, finally tracking down a blurry photo and first-hand accounts from the likes of Carson Brewer. Peters even painted Rindy’s portrait for the new book. But others are light-hearted and fun, like “Classy Gets Her Man,” a narrative of letters between Classy Cox and her future husband.

“On Christmas he had chosen to play cards rather than come see her,” said Peters. “The letter ended ‘Yours No More,’ but they were married three months later.”

Peters is also a firm believer that history doesn’t just live in books. She’s active with Preservation Union County and was instrumental in the restoration of Historic Oak Grove School in Sharps Chapel. But in the end, history is also about people.

“People are important to me, and if they don’t know who they are, I think it’s a tragedy,” she said. “Knowing their history helps them to be better citizens. It puts you as part of a larger culture.

“I’m still working with Preservation Union County to educate people on the value of historic preservation. There is an economic value as well as a sentimental value. When people come back to Union County, they want to see a little bit of what their parents and grandparents lived.”

Peters’ books are available for purchase at Home Federal Bank in Fountain City, the East Tennessee History Center gift shop, Okie’s Pharmacy in Maynardville and Blaine, and the Union County Museum and Library, or by calling Peters at 865-687-3842.

She will also hold a book signing 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, May 12, at Okie’s Pharmacy in Maynardville, with copies of her new book available for purchase.

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