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A living piece of history

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By Dwane Wilder

Local historian Jerry Sharp puts a face on the past that few people can. With so many fascinating stories to tell, he occasionally pauses in mid-sentence and winces, as if trying to wring every drop of knowledge out of his head.

More often than not, Sharp can be found at his second home — the Campbell County Historical Society Museum at 235 E. Central Ave., where he has served as curator since 1998.

He typically spends four days a week at the museum from the time it opens at 10 a.m. until closing at 2 p.m.

“My wife told me I spend too much time there,” said Sharp, who turned 82 on July 2. “I tell her she wants to get me in a rocking chair. She wants to buy me a La-Z-Boy recliner. I tell her I don’t have time to use it.”

Sharp can’t help himself. He loves history, especially anything involving his beloved Campbell County. He is descended from one of Tennessee’s founding families. The Sharps were German immigrants who helped settle nearby Union County during the 1780s — a decade before statehood. The family moved to Campbell County in the 1840s, when his great-great grandfather, Labon Sharp, bought 5,000 acres of land in what eventually became LaFollette. Labon Sharp made wagon wheels, and ran a tannery where Ellison’s Supply Company now stands in the downtown business district. He was also a blacksmith and operated a blast furnace. The Sharp property stretched from Nevada Avenue to Fincastle and from Hunters Branch Road to Jacksboro.

The LaFollette Housing Authority now stands on the old Sharp home place at the corner of Sharp Lane and S. 4th Street.

Sharp recently related a Civil War story about his family. Two sides of the family refused to speak to each other until 1929, when “grandfather Casper (Labon’s grandson), said enough of this.” He said, during the war, family members herded their cattle to the mountains to keep them from being confiscated by both Confederate and Union troops.

Sharp, who has cataloged countless historic artifacts and manuscripts during the past 16 years, led an interesting professional life before taking the job as curator of the museum.

He graduated from LaFollette High School in 1951 and spent two years at Hiwassee College before joining the U.S. Army in 1953. Sharp was headed to Korea for a combat tour when he was diverted to Fort Benning, Ga. to serve as a radio instructor.

Following his military service, Sharp worked 40 years for Oak Ridge National Laboratories — 14 at Union Carbide and 26 at the U.S. Department of Commerce and the Atmospheric Turbulence and Diffusion Divison of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“I can tell you some of the programs I worked on at X-10 (nuclear facility) and some I can’t,” he said.

Sharp said he personally analyzed the rifle Lee Harvey Oswald used to assassinate U.S. President John F. Kennedy, as well as other forensic materials related to the case.

Later, when Sharp began working for NOAA, he got a chance to fly.

“I always wanted to be a pilot,” he said. “When I got out of the Army, I took flying lessons.”

In addition to a pilot license, Sharp also has amateur (Ham) radio, commercial radio operator and citizens band radio licenses.

One of the most rewarding jobs for Sharp has been his second career as curator of the Campbell County Historical Society Museum.

“It’s been very rewarding, and I’m so thankful I get to do it,” he said. “The knowledge of our history I have found since I have been curator is just amazing.”

He said a decade after Labon Sharp passed away in 1888, one of his dreams was fulfilled when Indiana industrialist Harvey LaFollette came to the area to open an iron works, railroad and, eventually, a bustling community.

“Harvey LaFollette made my great-great grandfather happy, because he wanted a town built here. That was his goal,” Sharp said. “We would’ve been a one-horse town if Harvey LaFollette hadn’t come here.”

Although the LaFollette family has been gone from Campbell County for many generations, Sharp said members of the family sometimes visit the museum, which has an entire room devoted to Harvey and his brother, Grant.

“His kin folks are so pleased when they come here and we have something here to tell (his story).”

Sharp plans to continue as curator of the museum as long as he is able.

“As long as my health will hold up,” Sharp said. “My doctor tells me the best thing for me is to get up and get moving. I try to get to the museum at 10 a.m. every day if I don’t have a doctor’s appointment.”

One of Sharp’s biggest tasks has been to preserve photos, documents and artifacts to be enjoyed by future generations.

“We try to keep the temperature 70 degrees, year ‘round, so the metal won’t rust and books won’t deteriorate,” he said. “We keep the humidity as close to 50 percent as possible. We have covers on most of the fluorescent lights, and the lights are off more than they’re on.”

Besides the museum, the historical society is also responsible for upkeep of the old Catholic Church (now a wedding chapel), a Civil War-era graveyard (Delap Cemetery) and the coke ovens park at Ivydell.

He said the historical society is obligated to pay county and city taxes even though it performs a service for the community.

“I wish we (were tax free) because we are saving the county’s history,” Sharp said. “The only problem we have is money. If we could get about $8,000 a year in donations, that would be great. We manage to just keep our heads above water.”

He sang the praises of the many people who donate their time to keep the museum open to visitors.

“We couldn’t do it without the women and volunteers. They do a great job,” he said.

The group does receive some funding from county and municipal sources, as well as a fee for weddings conducted at the chapel and for annual memberships in the historical society.

Sharp wishes more visitors would tour the museum and accompanying historic sites in Campbell County.

“It’s a shame that more people don’t come see the things Campbell County was first in: the first commercial airport in Tennessee, which was in Jellico, the first 4-star general in Tennessee (Carl W. Stiner), the first Union troops in the state for service in the Civil War and the first TVA dam (Norris).”