Shared History - November 2021
- story and photos by Ellis Anderson
By all accounts, Member Number Seven changed the Hancock County Historical Society forever. After his admittance in 1985, the tiny organization’s boundaries expanded to take on whole new territories. Ambitious projects, which before had only been dreamed of wistfully over porcelain cups of tea, became reality.
Member Number Seven is named Charles Gray. The octogenarian historian is a gifted storyteller, so when he recounts how he first came to Bay St. Louis, listeners are drawn into another era, one loaded with all the mystery and elegance of The Great Gatsby.
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“I was sailing my boat from New Orleans to Key West [in 1985],” says Gray. “It happened to be the weekend of the Lipton Races at the yacht club, so I turned up the bay and put ashore. I saw Beechwood Hall for sale and had a contract on it before sundown.”
Beechwood Hall was one of the most prestigious historic properties on the Mississippi coast. Later, when Gray called the local historical society to find out more information about the 1840’s mansion he’d just purchased, he was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to access the documents.
“Hancock County Historical Society only had six members back in 1985. They said they didn’t let people rummage through their papers because someone might steal them. I told them that’s why God invented Xerox,” recalls Gray.
The other six soon realized they had a visionary in their midst and shortly after admitting him to membership, tapped Gray to serve as vice president. His first project was to petition Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH) to officially name a maritime battle of the War of 1812 that had taken place in local waters.
When the “Battle of the Bay of St. Louis” designation was approved by the state, the historical society held a celebration that included the firing of a cannon. The cannon apparently captured the imagination of the public.
“After that,” says Gray, “Our membership more than doubled, from seven to sixteen.”
Fast-forward 35 years to 2021: The Hancock County Historical Society (HCHS) now boasts a membership of more than a thousand and is one of the most important depositories of historic material on the Gulf Coast.
Charles Gray is still serving as executive director of the organization and with a robust board, HCHS is finding even more ways to engage the community.
This summer saw the group launch its first Cardboard Boat Race, a fund-raiser that turned out to be wildly popular. This October’s annual Cedar Rest Cemetery Tour was one of the best attended in memory.
And in December 2021, HCHS will premier its first documentary, with Charles Gray front and center, of course. “Connections Matter: An Oral History of the People & Places of Hancock County, Mississippi,” is a one-hour documentary produced by the organization.
The premiere takes place Tuesday, December 7, 2021 at the Silver Slipper Casino’s Bayou Blue Bar and Grill. The event is already a sell-out. The group is discussing a second full showing after the first of the year at the HCHS headquarters at the Kate Lobrano House (to get on the wait-list for the second showing, call 228.467.4090).
The documentary is the brain-child of relatively new HCHS board member Virginia Olander. Olander is a professional musician and composer from New Orleans who has extensive experience working with her husband, audio engineer Jim “Boa” Olander in music production of both the Jazz Fest and Essence festivals.
The documentary team included HCHS board member Jim Codling, who applied for a grant from the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Mariann Kwiat, a seasoned film industry veteran directed. Her husband, Jeff Kwiat helped out with lighting and other logistics. A friend of the Olanders, Fr. Sean Duggan, a concert pianist living in New York, provided the music.
Shooting of the project began in January 2020, ran through the year despite pandemic delays. In 2021, the editing process was started, with fine tuning finally completed in mid-November.
Part of the grant funding was used to create a video kiosk at the Kate Lobrano House, headquarters for HCHS. Some time next year, visitors and members will be able to select segments to watch from a video menu - including parts of "Connections Matter" to view.
"This is a well-earned legacy for Charles Gray, a very special honor," says Virginia Olander. "We wanted him on film so he'd be in the Kate Lobrano House forever more.
"The documentary is in the style of Ken Burns, who set the gold standard [for historical documentaries]. Of course, we didn't have a multi-million dollar budget," says Olander, laughing.
But the crew had a lot of heart and experience. We volunteered because we knew it'd be a great thing - a forever project - for Bay St. Louis and Hancock County. It was the right thing to do."
Olander points out that despite the grant covering some of the costs and the volunteer crew, the project could not have been completed without the help of several local businesses, credited in the film.
"We simply couldn't have done it without our community partners," she says.
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