"Tony is one of the most important figures we've ever had when it comes to the knowledge and preservation of our local history," says author J.B. Hogan of his friend and collaborator, Tony Wappel. Wappel is the author of three books about Fayetteville history -- Once Upon Dickson, On the Avenue and The Square Book -- and is the archivist records manager for Washington County. There are probably a few people in Fayetteville who know more about the area's history than he does -- but there aren't many.
You won't hear that from the modest Wappel, though: The introverted historian prefers his role behind pen and paper, attracting as little attention as possible. He would like to be remembered, he says, as having "quietly made a difference." And having published three comprehensive books about Fayetteville's history and garnered awards like the 2012 Distinguished Citizen Award from the Washington County Historical Society, it seems a given that he will be.
Though he has the knowledge of one, Wappel isn't a Fayetteville native. He moved to the area in the late 1980s to attend graduate school at the University of Arkansas.
"The way I look at it is, if you move to a place, you should learn its history," he says. "Because that helps you become a part of the town and more accepting of the town and everybody in it."
Wappel was just a child when he recognized his strong interest in and respect for the secrets of the past. His father was a fire insurance inspector, and Wappel would often accompany him on trips to inspect Catholic churches in southern Illinois.
"I was bored, waiting for my dad," he remembers. "I would spend time walking in the cemeteries that were next door to these little rural churches. I think that sort of influenced my interest in history -- the architecture of the buildings, as well as the headstones. I would just enjoy looking at the variety of headstones and the dates to see how old the cemetery was."
It's not every 12 year-old who knows how to mine city and church records for 80-year-old marriage certificates -- but when Wappel got interested in genealogy at that age, he figured out how to do just that.
Through Others’ Eyes
“Tony is an excellent listener with a diplomatic ear. He has a sense of humor and loves quirky stories, loves the humanitarian side of politics. He leaves the Sunday Democrat-Gazette on my porch every Sunday after he gets back from breakfast at the bowling alley. I appreciate this gesture of consideration and sharing. He is a good friend who would help in a heartbeat.” — Darlene Graf
“He can say a lot in a few words, and I find that very fascinating. He can phrase things so concisely, without a lot of clutter.” — Truman Parker
“As an archivist, his skill, experience, and knowledge are absolutely indispensable. Whether you are looking up land records, deed trails or a criminal case, Tony will be able to help you. Countless times, he has helped me find historical information that I’ve used for my books and articles.” — J.B. Hogan
Gail Reede Jones
"I wrote letters to the courthouses, asking them for information," he says. "Luckily, so many of them were nearby. I begged my dad or my mom to take me to the cemeteries to look for our ancestors. A lot of the information was in church records. There were a lot of old priests who were probably tired of hearing from me. I would go to the city of St. Louis to the recorder's office and look through all of their old marriage records and probate records, and I just loved doing that. I was so impressed with what they had and how easy it was to find stuff. And, obviously, at the time, I didn't know I would be doing something similar, but it made a mark."
Road to Fayetteville
Wappel was born in East St. Louis, though his family moved out as the deterioration that had started in the 1950s and 1960s continued to plague the city. By 1981, East St. Louis had less than one-third of the population than it had in 1950, when the bustling city had hit its population peak at just over 82,000.
"My dad and I would go [downtown] quite a bit, even after we moved," says Wappel. "There were a lot of old buildings that were just falling apart. You know, typical Rust Belt city. I would ask him what these buildings were -- what was this, what was that -- and he would always give me these little short histories, because he had grown up there.
"As a kid, I always wanted to bring East St. Louis back to its glory. I would get these maps and color them in, because I had seen how bad it had gotten, because of the poverty."
He would take this desire to Loyola University with him, where he studied political science -- in lieu of an urban planning program, which Loyola didn't have -- with the intent of pursuing a career in city planning. He worked for the school library -- a natural fit, given his propensity to haunt them -- through a work study job, which he held for the four years of his time at Loyola.
"I loved my co-workers," he says. "It was such a diverse group. I still keep in contact with them. They loved to tease me to see me turn red -- I was just a nerdy kid from a small town. They actually offered me a full-time job my senior year, three months shy of graduating, but I would not have been able to finish my coursework, so I rejected it."
Instead, he headed to Fort Collins, Colo., to study environmental politics as a graduate student. Both the city and the tuition turned out to be expensive, so when he was offered a full scholarship to study political science through the Master of Public Administration program at the University of Arkansas, he jumped at the chance.
He pulled in to south Fayetteville on a Jefferson bus in the late summer of 1986.
"It was kind of depressed in 1986," he remembers. "A lot of Dickson Street was boarded up. I walked all over, trying to find a place to live close to campus. I found a place on North Duncan Street -- I was there for 11 years."
He got an internship in Special Collections at Mullins Library. He didn't have a car and walked everywhere -- to class, to work, to shop. He got to know the routes he traveled intimately.
"You get to see a lot more on foot than you do driving," he says.
Dickson was of particular interest to him, even more so when he started linking locations along the historic street together with the letters and documents he was tending during his time in Special Collections.
"I did regular historical manuscript processing," says Wappel. "I helped process a lot of political papers, and I did the McIlroy and the Greer family papers, for instance. And I think that history sort of got me hooked into Fayetteville history, so I started researching more about Fayetteville."
Soon, he found himself neck-deep in all of Washington County's historical documents, as well.
"Roger Haney was a classmate of mine," says Wappel. "He knew I was working with Special Collections, and he had asked me if I knew anything about county records. I said, 'I'm familiar with them,' and he said, 'Well, we have a problem here with the county's records. Can you come here and see what you can do?'"
What Wappel could do turned out to be a lot: Within a year's worth of contract work with the county, he had brought order to the chaos of boxes and boxes of uncategorized documents. He had an uncanny knack, not only for untangling years of mishandled files, but also for organizing them in logical ways that made access to them intuitive and easy. His reputation soon spread, and Benton County called him -- first for a contract job and then, when they had seen the miracles he was capable of, they lured him away from Mullins Library by offering him a full-time job.
"They had a lot of records in old truck trailers," he says of the pickle Benton County found itself in. "It was a mess, like three or four trailers of records, boxes and boxes. They wanted me to help sort those out and inventory them, tell them which ones they could get rid of. Just clean it up."
For most people, the sight of four truck trailers full of unruly paperwork would make their hearts sink. Wappel, however, is built of sterner stuff.
"It's a challenge for me," he says with a chuckle. "But I love a challenge. I get bored when I don't have enough to do."
Writing It Down
Wappel worked for Benton County until his old friend Roger Haney successfully lured him back down to Washington County. In April 1997, he started work as the archivist records manager for the county, the position he still holds today. Now he's on the other side of the counter than he was in his teenage days, when he was scouring county records for family information.
"I assist people, either in person or by email or phone calls, help them locate information that they need, like a divorce decree or criminal record or a land record," he says. "I'm like a reference librarian for country records. It's very rewarding, because I know, I understand exactly, especially when it's a genealogy question, what they need. I'm happy to talk to people, and everybody leaves our office happy -- it's very rare that people will leave mad. They may come in mad, because they might have gotten the runaround before, but people need to leave satisfied."
"I can have a conversation with Tony about the property I live on, and the next thing I know, he's giving me all the surveying documents, everything related to my home," says friend Truman Parker of Wappel's ability to ferret out information. "He seems to know more about Fayetteville than those who have almost grown up here. He told me all about the easements for the driveway and when they were established, all of these things that I never would have known."
It seems a perfect fit for Wappel, who says he's happiest when he's "figuring something out." And remember how he said he loves a challenge? In down times, he and his co-worker, Judy Drummond, took on the task of getting all of the land records from 1834 to 1991 online, a job that took the pair nearly 10 years. It is, he says, his proudest achievement yet in his current position.
"We went through all of the deed and mortgage books and land records," he says. "And page by page, we entered each entry. That's very rare. I've never seen that anywhere else."
"He is very willing to help [with] various kinds of personal research [using] the historic archives of Washington County," says Ethel Simpson, Wappel's collaborator on Once Upon Dickson. "He has helped people understand that they can come in there and ask about their grandfather's property or find out who lived in their house when it was first built -- general questions and local history questions. And because of the work he's done on the history of Fayetteville, he's an important expert. I think that a lot of people have the impression that public archives are something that abstractors or lawyers or developers might use, but Tony has conveyed that they actually have a wider use -- and that's a really important responsibility, to let people understand that they are there to help the general public and not just a few groups of professionals."
Simpson became friends with Wappel when both worked in Special Collections at Mullins. Wappel, in fact, credits Simpson's tenacity as the reason his first book was finally finished.
"It was published 14 years after I started," he says. "I sat on it a while. I put it away, put it in the closet, and Ethel Simpson kept bugging me: 'You have to finish this.' And I said, 'I will if you help me.'"
"She calls herself 'The Terminator'. People should really give Ethel a lot of credit for that book."
"Tony is a meticulous researcher," observes Simpson. "Every avenue that could be followed, he dug into it and found information. I had published a picture book of the history of the university, so I knew a lot about the upper part of Dickson. But the main thing I did was to see, 'How are we going to get this in print?' Because, really, if you do the research, and it never gets into the article or book -- it's just so sad to think about all of that work, and no one gets to enjoy reading what you wrote."
Dickson Street was the subject of Wappel's first book because he had such a personal history with it.
"He used to walk along Dickson every day, practically," says Simpson. "He felt as though he knew Dickson personally, and he was there at a time when there were changes. Some of the old buildings were either being torn down or repurposed, and he was able to see that all going on. I think that was a large part of it."
"The interest struck me while I was working in Special Collections, and, usually on lunch hours or the weekends, I would go through all of the Razorback annuals, looking for ads and business names," says Wappel. "I compiled an inventory of all of the people on the street."
The result was a critical and commercial success -- so much so that despite the grueling and lengthy writing process and the publicity tour, which the shy Wappel found difficult -- he decided to do a second, then third, Fayetteville history book. First up was a collaboration with Dennis Garrison, owner of Dennis Vacuum Center on College Avenue, about the nearly 10-mile stretch of 71B from Drake Field to Lake Fayetteville.
"I've been right here at this store location for 35 years, and I know lots of people," Garrison says. "I thought it was a fantastic idea. I've loved history my whole life, and having lived in the area since 1971, and seeing lots of changes for that time period, it's something that definitely interested me. Tony's organizational skills and my attention to detail worked well together."
"One of my graduate professors, Steven Neuse, was congratulating me about the Dickson Street book, and he said, 'Now you need to do one on Highway 71,'" says Wappel. "I took it as a joke, but I started thinking about it and thought, 'That could be kind of interesting.' So I started hanging out at the library with all of the city directories in the vertical files, compiling information. At that point, I knew how to use the county's tax records to help figure out who was where. I went from Drake Field to Lake Fayetteville -- that's 10 miles, whereas Dickson Street was 10 blocks, so it was a much larger scope."
The second book took about eight years to write, Wappel says, with a break of about a year-and-a-half while he considered online publishing options. He thought the second book would be his last, but, with the encouragement of another persistent friend, he found himself taking on a third book.
"Jerry Hogan bugged me to death about it," he says with a laugh of Hogan, who would end up collaborating on The Square Book book with Wappel. "I said, 'I'm just not interested in the square.' It wasn't as interesting to me until I started researching it, and then I thought, 'This has really interesting 19th century history.' They had shootings. They had tons of taverns. It was like Gunsmoke -- The Wild, Wild West. It was a very interesting place with interesting businesses and partnerships.
"My best discovery on the square was that the Mountain Inn was built in the 1870s and part of that original building still exists," he continues. "What you see on the front is a facade that was put up in the 1920s. If you look at the back side on Mountain Street, it's identical to the old photos of the 1870s hotel. Nobody better tear that down."
That comment is a hint at what can really get under the skin of the otherwise mild-mannered Wappel: As a custodian of Fayetteville's history, it pains him to see so much of it discarded as the town experiences its current growing pains, bursting at the seams. A resident of South Street, Wappel purchased the house next door to him when he heard it was in danger of being torn down. Friend and neighbor Darlene Graf moved next door.
"He was a former owner of my house and passed on a great deal of the history to me -- right down to the paint chips of color used on the walls, pictures of renovation work and log of former owners," says Graf. "He revived both of our South Street houses to original character and appeal, and there has been a revitalization of older homes on our street thanks to his trailblazing efforts. His gift to my house was not only saving it from disrepair, but also stripping all the old layers of paint on the doors and showcasing the original wood, which I love."
"It's getting too expensive, and we're losing what made Fayetteville nice -- we're losing the funkiness," Wappel says.
He worries about the housing shortage, specifically how it will affect students at the university: He was once a financially struggling student himself, and he remembers it well, along with the lessons he learned witnessing poverty and the destruction of once-great neighborhoods in East St. Louis.
"So if I get out of the history field, and if I ever retire, I've been thinking of maybe volunteering with 7Hills or even the Literacy Council," he says.
Such altruism would be a second gift from Wappel to his adopted hometown -- his first being the rich historical records he so carefully assembled in his books.
"Tony's books are a tribute to the people and places that make this town," says Graf. "They are meticulous documents of the when and where of what was and what continues to thrive, what has fallen away. They are books of posterity, and we are lucky to have them as maps to the past."
"You know, by the time I was doing these last two books, I felt like, 'Well, Fayetteville has been pretty good to me,'" says Wappel. "So it's sort of my way of paying back. That's my way of helping. I know I can't afford to buy every building and preserve it, but I can document it. I can take pictures.
"That's the best I can do."
NAN Profiles on 05/20/2018
Print Headline: Anthony Wappel