By Bill Currie
This month’s Gem speaks with a hint of British aristocracy, owns a home in Scotland overlooking England from across the River Tweed and drives a Rolls Royce.
So, how did this refined upper-brow Scotsman settle in Bay St. Louis? Being born and raised in Waynesboro, Mississippi, helped.
It’s one many surprises revealed by Charles Gray, executive director of the Hancock County Historical Society.
Gray, 85, attended Waynesboro High School and Mississippi Southern College before it changed to the University of Southern Mississippi. He served in the 15th Infantry in Germany from 1956-’58. Soon after, he went to New Orleans to a New Year’s party – and stayed 43 years.
Gray bought into a thriving restaurant, Corinne Dunbar’s on St. Charles Avenue, and was vice president of the corporation for 43 years until retiring in 1984. He then bought Beachwood Hall, an 1840 Greek revival antebellum mansion on South Beach Boulevard in Bay St. Louis.
He began researching the house and called the Hancock County Historical Society to see what they knew. The president said they had some documentation on the house and he naturally asked, “May I come down and copy your paperwork?”
And she said, “Indeed not. We don’t just let anyone rummage through our papers.”
Gray didn’t like being “just anyone” so he approached the six society members at lunch and, despite a chilly reception, he managed to leave with a membership and title of first vice president. Later that year in December 1985, the society held a rally on the beach to celebrate the Battle of Bay St. Louis.
Two cannons were fired, drinks were served and the historical society swelled to 16 members by the end of the evening.
At that point, Gray decided a newsletter was appropriate for an active society. Funding was scarce but he used whatever was on hand.
“We owned a typewriter, a US Royal, one of those big old clunky things, but it had no W key, so if you wrote William you had to call him Bill. You had to be very careful of the word you used. For many months I put out a newsletter every month typed on that old typewriter and I had to type 17 copies, 16 for the members and one for the file, because I wasn’t going to mail out a carbon copy. So, finally I bought a little word processing machine, the first computer I ever touched.”
The society met in restaurants and, before long, Gray began searching for a house to rent to establish a home for its records.
“A little house next to the County Courthouse on Main Street had been abandoned for years. It had grown up in weeds, had no electricity, no sewerage, no water.”
There were 16 grandchildren who were heirs to the abandoned house. Gray wrote a letter to the patriarch of the family, Judge Allen Lobrano in Point a la Hache, Louisiana. The judge passed away before answering Charles but his heirs found Charles’ letter on which the Judge had written, “Give the little house to the historical society.”
It took plenty of work, but the group finally got the house in shape. During the renovation they added space to accommodate various needs.
The Lobrano House wasn’t the only thing that grew rapidly.
“We went from 16 to nearly 1,000 members before Katrina. We had five computers going and we had lots of volunteers. We photographed every house in BSL and were photographing Waveland when the storm hit.”
Katrina swept away Charles’ Beachwood Hall and his warehouse on Washington Street. Although damaged, the little house on Cue Street was repairable.
“This little building was off its foundation on the front. The roof was gone, the ceiling was down, and the rugs were soaked, but the computers were dry.
Again, renovations got the house back in shape. And, they didn’t lose a single document that we weren’t able to reprint or air dry or iron and restore.
The society knew they had dodged a bullet and so easily could have lost everything. The board approached Charles about buying flood insurance.
“I told them, no, we don’t need insurance. All that will do is buy us a crate of paper. We need our documents digitized. So, instead of insurance we bought scanners. Even today we have people scanning almost full-time. Almost every document we own now is safely in the cloud where it can be retrieved from anywhere.”
Gray has steered the society for 33 years now and has finally settled into the last position he’ll hold in the society.
“I have served in every single position on the board. Our by-laws required that they keep moving me from one position to the other. I’ve been president, vice president, secretary, treasurer and historian. After about three or four times as president, I said we need some new ideas in here and I will not accept the presidency again. So, I went on vacation for two weeks and came back and they said, ‘Oh, we have a new executive director for life. Guess who?’ ”
The society is as vibrant as anyone could hope for and Gray is proud of the work being done, all by donated labor and devotion.
“Our website is one of the finest websites in America. I have a friend who is a computer expert. She made us a new one. It’s extraordinary, one of the easiest computer websites to work in the nation. And she is currently rewriting our photograph file. If you type in an address it will bring up every photograph we have of that particular address. We have 30, 40, 50, 60 pictures of some places dating back 150 years.”
Gray believes everyone who has lived in the county deserves a one-page profile on the website, no matter the difficulty.
Gray and the volunteers he leads are passionate about history and documenting it for future generations, as well as sharing it with the current residents of Hancock County.
Their cemetery tour draws around 800 people every year. He also leads school groups on walking tours downtown, regaling students with stories of houses and families long gone, civil war battles, and perhaps a ghost story or two.
Gray has led the society through tumultuous times and yet today the Lobrano House sits on Cue Street as if it’s always been there, unchanged through time.
The documents inside, though, tell a different story; a story of Cue Street, Main Street and nearly every street in the county through recorded history.
If history repeats itself, as the saying goes, the Society will have the documentation to prove it, and Hancock County will have Gray to thank for it.
If you’d like to search for family records, peruse priceless photographs or learn more about the Hancock County Historical Society, visit hancockcountyhistoricalsociety.com, call 467-4090, or stop by 108 Cue St. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-noon or 1-3 p.m.
If you would like to share a story or stories from your life or you would like to nominate someone to be a Gem, email: email@example.com.