At 80 years old, Ran Shaffner has decided to retire from the Highlands Historical Society as its Archivist but it’s not likely Highlands has heard the last of him.
To honor all the work he has done chronicling the history of Highlands in various publications and being on call at HHS as archivist to answer any question regarding Highlands’ past, HHS is bestowing him the title of Archivist Emeritus.
Though in “normal” times, his retirement and his new status would be celebrated publicly, during these COVID times, his retirement and new title is being announced via the press.
But for decades, the history of Highlands has run in Shaffner’s blood – writing a history of Hudson Library and The Heart of the Blue Ridge as well as going through the painstaking process of having areas in Highlands designated historical districts and being instrumental in having historical markers erected in town.
Thanks to Shaffner and his association with HHS, the organization is now recognized not only regionally but also nationally for its contributions to education (the Harbison marker), exploration (the Michaux marker), medicine (the Lapham marker), folklore (the Moccasin War marker), and the National Register (the Prince House marker).
In October 2019 Shaffner was named North Carolina’s Historian of the Year by the North Carolina Society of Historians for “mammoth contributions to researching, recording, and perpetuating North Carolina’s rich history.”
“On behalf of the Board of Directors of the Highlands Historical Society, I would like to publicly congratulate our founder, Dr. Ran Shaffner, on being recognized by his peers as the 2019 Historian of the Year,” said President of the HHS Obie Oakley, Jr. at the time. “His contributions to his chosen field and especially to the wonderful town of Highlands extend well beyond this one year. From only an idea, he has led a great group of volunteers to establish an incredible star in the crown of this community.”
“I may be retiring from the role of HHS archivist, but emeritus lets me stay officially involved as a backup for incoming archivist Stuart Ferguson and associate archivist Phil Potts. It also allows me to continue answering historical questions for the public online,” said Shaffner.
Ferguson said Shaffner’s will be big shoes to fill.
“Ran’s Heart of the Blue Ridge is a magisterial account of Highlands, and has become the go-to source for just about everything, no matter how obscure or important (without discounting the other fine accounts of the town’s history by others including Isabel & Tony Chambers, T.W. Reynolds, Gert McIntosh, as well as memoirs.) Ran has contributed so much to the Highlands Historical Society, and to our understanding of the community,” said Ferguson.
Prior to coming to Highlands, Shaffner was a professor of literature but as he operated Cyrano’s Bookshop on Main Street his interest in Highlands history piqued.
“My customers at Cyrano’s Bookshop told me so many stories about the people and events in Highlands that I put them into a history of the Hudson Library. That library, like the town itself, had grown up in phases from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Like a person, it had a personality and character that made it, the town, and the people of the town unique in the history of North Carolina.
“But a 200-page book about a library couldn’t hold all the fascinating stories I’d heard, so an 800-page book about the town was born. I was no longer a teacher of literature but a historian by default. It’s ironic that the only course I almost failed in my education was history, which would interest me for the next 40 years,” said Shaffner.
The publication of Heart of the Blue Ridge was instrumental in the reactivation of the Historical Society.
On June 22, 1979, a small group of Highlands residents began to meet because they shared a concern for the history of the town. The area was changing rapidly and historic structures were disappearing. These concerned citizens formed the Highlands Historical Preservation Society, Inc., intent on performing a survey of historic structures in Highlands. When an inventory of 173 homes was completed in 1981, the Society fell into inactivity.
It was reactivated as the Highlands Historical Society in 1999 when its mission was expanded to preserve and promote all of Highlands history.
“The Highlands Historical Society has been my love for the past 20 years. I was thrilled when it won a State award for its accomplishments in 2002. Six more awards from the Society of North Carolina Historians have been associated with its archives, its museum, and its publications,” said Shaffner.
Shaffner attributes his receiving last year’s Historian of the Year Award to decades of the Historical Society’s promotion of the Highlands’ history and appreciation of the heritage of Western North Carolina.
“I’m retiring as the Society’s archivist because at 80 it’s time. But as Fred Rogers used to say, ‘Often when you’re at the end of something, you’re at the beginning of something else.’ I look forward to more research, more publications, and hearing more stories about Highlands and its people, which make life worth living just to hear them told as only Highlanders can tell them.”
Pictured at the top of the article is Ran Shaffner at the Moccasin War Historical Marker dedication in Highlands. To read about the dedication, click HERE.
By Kim Lewicki, Highlands Newspaper
Photos by Brian O’Shea