About a month ago, Catawba County lost one of its most important historians. Matt Bumgarner was that rare combination of enthusiasm, intelligence and superior research ethic that made listening to him discuss any number of topics a real learning experience, as well as a lot of fun.
Matt was not a stuffy historian, throwing out facts to dazzle or confuse, though he knew plenty and could offer them off the top of his head if that’s what you wanted. He was the best kind of teacher. Passionate, connected, and respectful of where he could help your understanding of whatever event or issue you wanted to talk about.
I first found out about Matt Bumgarner thirty years ago when I started a regional historical documentary series called Back Then… airing on (then) Prime Cable. Catawba County Historical Association director Sidney Halma suggested I contact Matt about questions I had concerning the Watauga & Yadkin River Railroad, a part of my first story on the lost town of Grandin. Matt was gracious, informed and rock-solid on his history. I went back to that well a lot. We did episodes on other rail lines but also other stories too. He was the “go to guy” for numerous aspects of local history.
Like Matt, a lot of us grew up in that era when railroads captured our imaginations as kids. In the old westerns we watched, trains were second only to horses as the way to travel. In fact, they were more accessible. Every summer, we could ride one. All it took was a trip to Boone where a real steam locomotive gave us the thrill of our young lives, on a tourist attraction called Tweetsie. While many of us were hooked trying to imagine what the old days were like, Matt took it several steps further. He soaked up anything and everything connected to railroads. It became his life’s work.
It wasn’t just storing up all that info, though. Matt Bumgarner was a talented leader, writer, and entrepreneur. Much is his work is preserved through his many books, on railroads but also some important work on the American Civil War too. He started his own publishing company, Tarheel Press. It was though Matt that a couple of guys published a book on the possibility that Abraham Lincoln was actually a North Carolinian by birth. Matt’s genius for marketing got the story told on CNN, WBT and the Chicago Tribune.
As I was working on my upcoming book on furniture, I couldn’t figure out how lumber that was loaded onto rail cars in Wilkesboro could get to Lenoir factories. No rail line ran between the two cities (it still doesn’t). I quizzed Matt, who made it all make sense, exemplifying one of his best attributes. He was a considerate person who wanted to help anybody that was interested in history. He did so in a way that wasn’t off-putting or judgmental. He cared. You could see it in the positions he took, the comments he made and his approach to everything and everyone he touched. And that was a lot of folks.
You don’t find people like that very often. It is our loss that we will not have the benefit of his knowledge, wisdom, friendliness and inspiration any more. However, he left a tremendous legacy. His shoes are unfill-able, but he poured out all he knew to all who knew him. For that and for a lot more, we owe Matt Bumgarner a great debt. He helped us understand who we are by showing us who we were. Godspeed Matt!
Photo: Matt Bumgarner in 1993, from an episode of Back Then…