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Meanings in Things: Doing Genealogy with Artifacts
by Joanne Stuttgen

As president of the other historical organization in Morgan County, the Morgan County Historic Preservation Society (MCHPS), and secretary of MCHAGA, I am frequently confronted with the attitude that preservation and genealogy have nothing in common. This greatly disturbs me. The two pursuits of history are not siblings discovered to have different sets of parents. The historic properties that concern the preservationist were conceived, built, and used by the very individuals who fascinate the genealogist.

As a folklorist, preservationist, and local historian closely affiliated with genealogists during the past year and a half, I have observed that genealogy research is largely a selfish pursuit, being self-focused, or rather family-focused. By this I mean that the tracing of lineages tends to be of tremendous personal value but of scant public value. Too often ignored is the placement of individuals and/or families in a social context.

In the work that I do as a folklorist and preservationist, context is crucial. To understand the significance of an artifact -- whether house, bridge, quilt, or chair -- I must achieve as deep an understanding of how it fits into history: when, how, and why it was built; how it was used; what it meant to its maker and consumer; how it is or is not representative of other artifacts like it. Only by developing the context of an artifact can I claim familiarity with it.

Context cannot be established for an artifact that is not yet identified, so contextualization must begin with a thing, a building let's say. That building, because it is an object crafted by humans at a certain historical and cultural point in time, has much to say of value to historians and genealogists. In submitting it to rigorous enquiry, the building becomes a primary document. The written document is secondary and supplemental to it, creating context and coaxing the building to reveal its stories.

Artifacts are a rich source of information over- looked by many historians, as well as genealogists trained to depend on written documents for data to fill in family group sheets. Unlike written sources, which are so often proven to be riddled with errors, the artifact is objective. Artifacts aren't influenced by the vagaries of handwriting; aren't affected by the faulty transmission of information from oral to written form; aren't mistakenly altered through hand-copying; and aren't omitted because someone didn't think them significant.

The weakness in using artifacts to do history or genealogy is that we have not been trained to use them. Skilled at reading the written word, we are nearly incompetent in using artifacts as historical information. But this is not difficult to overcome. The key to successfully using artifacts in research is contextualization, or "reading" them within a socio-historical context.

I believe that genealogy would be most successful and rewarding in itself and in its contributions to public history when it aims for the deep understanding of individuals and families within context, in linking them to places and things. This is why I am so pleased to know David G. Nutter of Rochester, New York.

David is a member of both MCHAGA and MCHPS, and by profession he is an urban planner engaged in issues of preservation. He is also a family historian with a pesky need to know everything he can about the Nutter family's involvement in Martinsville. David is more fortunate than most family historians because the Nutters are well-documented in the variety of available local written sources. Blanchard's county history provides excellent details, as do censuses, obituaries, and newspaper reports. Yet David is positively rich in a great number of other valuable sources, namely the artifacts the Nutter family left behind.

Elsewhere in this issue, Dale Drake has provided a Nutter descendant chart to guide you through the remainder of this article. David's own family grouping -- a portrait of four generations of paternal ancestors -- is an artifact that lends faces to the printed names.

The family of Huett Nutter (1784 - 1845) was among the earliest in Martinsville, and having great business acumen and enough money to put it to use, the family flourished. The Nutter men and women appear frequently in the pages of the deed records, buying and selling rural farm acreage, residential property in Martinsville -- including several additions to the city -- and commercial property around the courthouse square. By 1898, the Nutters were applauded by the Martinsville Republican as being "numbered among our most influential and most reliable citizens -- no name appearing more frequently in the commercial circles of Martinsville . . . ."

The Nutter name appeared not only in Martinsville's commercial circles but on its commercial buildings as well. Most notable is the T. H. Nutter Block at 60-70 West Morgan Street, built in 1891 and existing yet today (see the photo below). Entrepreneur Thomas H. Nutter erected this fine brick commercial building, which housed a hotel and restaurant and the Nutter Brothers jewelry store operated by Albert F. and John C. Nutter, two of Thomas' sons. Opened in 1892, Nutter Brothers carried a first class line of clocks and watches, jewelry, silver and plated ware, spectacles, and string instruments.

Adjacent to the Nutter Block on the west was located Nutter Livery and Feed Stable established in 1885 by Thomas H. and later operated with another son, Job. The stable was destroyed by fire on January 14, 1912, with the thermometer registering 26 degrees below zero. The 1900-era photograph of the Nutter Livery and Nutter Block on the next page includes Thomas H. Nutter at center wearing a long coat and holding a horse; holding the pony at left is yet another son, Kelly Nutter, and on the right holding a horse is son Ed. Under the sign is another son, Randall L. Nutter.

Job Nutter is associated with the house at 1090 East Harrison Street in Martinsville, shown at the right, not because he built it but because he lived there during the 1920s. It was Job's cousin, Walter E. Nutter, who built the house about 1890. It is an exceptional Queen Anne, a style preferred by the upper classes in the late nineteenth century and most suitably reflecting the Nutter family's prominence and prestige.

In 1913, perhaps finding the older Queen Anne antiquated in its lavish ornamentation, Walter E., the general manager of Martinsville Milling Company, had the remarkable Prairie style house shown below built across the street. It was about this time, perhaps, that Job Nutter took up residence in the Queen Anne, although he never owned it.

There are other monuments, other artifacts, that hold stories of the Nutter family in Martinsville. Some still exist -- Nutter Woods, for example, became Jimmy Nash Park in Martinsville -- but many others do not. Among those that no longer exist are several documented in historic photographs, such as the home of Karl I. and Blanche Nutter at 60 West Pike Street, which later became the Martinsville Moose Lodge. Submitting them to additional enquiry will result in a genealogy of the Nutter family and a history of Martinsville enriched by con- textualization: the understanding of individuals and families within a specific time and place. Genealogists, historians, folklorists and preservationists -- we should all strive for nothing less.

Morgan County History & Genealogy, Vol. 2, No. 4, p. 3, Autumn 1996.

Morgan County History & Genealogy

30 September 2000