By Edward Graham
Ask anyone in Polk County, Tenn., to identify the leading authority on local history and the answer is the same: Marian Presswood, a retired elementary and middle school teacher.
“I had never taught history in my life, had absolutely no background for editing or writing, and didn’t know doodley about doing genealogy research or being a librarian,” says Presswood.
None of that stopped her. Presswood retired following 30 years of teaching math and reading. She became the official Polk County historian and archivist, reorganized an inactive historical society, and was elected the organization’s president. She also opened a small genealogy library—which she runs four days a week as the volunteer librarian—and edits the historical society’s quarterly publication. Presswood’s father and her desire to learn more about her heritage ignited her passion for history.
“I got into it because of him, and then I just got hooked,” says Presswood.
Presswood recorded all of Polk County’s burials. With 23,000, the project was daunting. Often accompanied by her husband, she scoured the countryside to record known and unknown gravestones. Her efforts became a 700-page inscription book, an invaluable tool for genealogical research. But Presswood’s efforts didn’t stop there. She continues to find and photograph the county’s old graves for posting online.
“We climb mountains, scramble through briar patches, wander fields, and fight fire ants to read all the old cemeteries scattered across Polk County,” says Presswood.
Presswood’s dedication to local history has made her a valuable resource for family genealogists. She’ll often spend hours researching someone’s relative to learn about their lives.
“Sometimes I would go to bed at 3 a.m. because I was so fascinated by what I was doing that I needed to find one more thing,” Presswood says.
When she’s not working in her genealogy library or doing historical research, Presswood writes a weekly column for a local newspaper about the county’s history. Her historical work has netted her a number of awards and accolades from her peers across the state. Last year, she received the Community History Award from the East Tennessee Historical Society—Presswood’s fourth award from the group.
All of Presswood’s work is voluntary. She estimates that she’s donated nearly 20,000 hours to the library and historical society. Calling her efforts a labor of love, Presswood says. “We need to encourage retired people to try and preserve their heritage for their kids and the future.”