Marian Bailey Presswood is a continually active individual who ensures the community, and its residents, remain connected with the past. Presswood is Polk County’s historian and archivist.
Her position as president of the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Society can sometimes seem a thankless task, but she says she enjoys what she does anyway.
Presswood, with a group of volunteers, has done much to preserve the history of one of Tennessee’s most unique communities. There are the traditions, the old mining endeavors of nearby Copperhill and the many memories of countless mountain folk the Cherokee who lived throughout the area.
This group has done much to maintain the stories and records of the people who once lived in the community, and what was accomplished in their lives over a period of time. These histories are being maintained in the society’s library of information in downtown Benton.
An “addiction” at present is that she and her husband, James, are working to mark gravesites throughout the community. They’ve marked 2,500 over the past year. “It’s an addiction, but it’s enjoyable,” she said.
They are helping to guarantee these individuals’ names are remembered for history.
“There are still many (unmarked) gravesites out there,” she said. One ancient cemetery (the Columbus Cemetery) has more than 800 graves of former Cherokee and old travelers who came through the region.
Although Presswood is now focused on the activities of the society, she has many accomplishments in her lifetime resume. She was appointed historian by the Polk County Commission in 1993, but prior to that was an educator for 30 years.
Presswood is a past president of the Polk County Teachers’ Association and president for the Historical Society’s 400-plus members. She founded the society in 1995. She has been a four-day-a-week volunteer of the society for the past 14 years.
She also founded the Genealogy Society in 1997 and serves as its librarian.
Although she didn’t pursue higher learning until well after her marriage and her life as a wife and mother, the Polk County High School graduate and first member of the school’s Hall of Fame now has an associate’s degree from Cleveland State Community College, a bachelor’s from Lee University and a master’s from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She has 65 hours of credit above her master’s and was accepted to the doctoral program at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
Presswood has been extremely busy with programs of the PCHGS in recent years, all volunteer work with some expenses out-of-pocket for things she does for residents, former residents and others interested in the history and genealogy of the region.
She is also an active member of the Chamber of Commerce and several heritage organizations. She has held offices in the Jefferson Davis Chapter No. 900 United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Ocoee Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Presswood is past chair for monuments and memorial markers with the Records Committee of the Tennessee Division of the UDC and the 2011 winner of the State UDC essay contest on East Tennessee Soldiers.
The Polk County historian was recognized with the East Tennessee Historical Society’s Award of Distinction in 1998, and the ETHC’s teaching award in 1996. In 2006 Presswood was presented the society’s Ramsey Award for lifetime achievement for excellence in education and history preservation.
She served as committee chair of the Heritage book committee in 1997, which collected more than 700 family stories for the publication. She wrote most of the topical and community history articles for the book.
Presswood also edited a 400-page History of Polk County from material collected by former Polk County historian Ray Lillard. She edits the Historical Association’s award-winning quarterly newsletter, which she founded in 1995.
The quarterly newsletter is mailed to former residents and society members who live in other communities across the nation.
Presswood and the society have transcribed many of the county’s census records, and Polk County is just one of a very few counties that have every census in print since 1839.
Her historical articles have appeared in national publications, including the most recent in “Ancestry” and another in a Southern California genealogical society magazine.
Presswood says that as an avid genealogist at the society’s library in Benton she has helped countless people “find their grandpa” through extensive research.
She also shares stories of this research with readers of the society’s newsletters.
The county historian also writes a column for the Polk County News, is a member of the “Find-a-grave” community and she and James add pictures of old grave markers to the society’s website.
She said it is touching when she provides descendants of local residents with photos of a gravesite of that individual. If possible, she also provides a photo of the late family member for the descendant.
Presswood and her husband are the parents of daughters, Robbi, an educator at Ooltewah High School, and Becki, a CPA who heads the financial department of St. Marks Episcopal School in Coral Gables, Fla. They also have a son, Joey.
Marian Presswood is a former member of Old Ocoee Baptist Church where she taught Sunday School, sang in the choir and did the children’s church story. She is currently a member of First Baptist Church in Benton.
Presswood developed intense interest in genealogy in recent years when she assisted her father in the pursuit of his family history.
Her late father, Everett Bailey, came to Polk County from Fannin County, Ga. He was a farmer and a singing teacher, teaching “shape notes.” He and three brothers relocated to Polk County with the development of Georgia’s Blue Ridge Lake and dam.
Her mother Pearl lived next door to her grandparents and met her father when he first came to Polk County as the youngest of four brothers. Her uncles are E.P. Bailey Jr., who died in 2005, Ralston Bailey and Lowell Bailey.
She married James when she was only 17 and the couple lived in Rogersville for 10 years while her husband was employed by the Tennessee Valley Authority as a unit operator. They then returned to Benton and her husband worked for years in an electronics shop before retiring in 1992.
Marian Presswood taught math at Benton Elementary School, before her years with the Historical and Genealogical Society.
She got her first taste of these pursuits when she was selected by former Tennessee Gov. Ned McWherter to assist with the Tennessee Bicentennial and the “Tennessee Treasures” tour.
Former Polk County historian Ray Lillard died in 1991 and the Polk Commission selected Presswood as his successor in 1994. She later was appointed as the county’s archivist.
Discussing the mass of historical items, books and documents at the library recently, Presswood emphasized, “This is only a drop in the bucket as to what I do.”
She acknowledged there are many, many people who have assisted her (and the society) over the years, too many to praise individually. She did say the work of the late Uncle Billy Harrison, who died in 1950, was invaluable. He transcribed the family history of many local families in a little blue book he carried. He left 19 of these books for history, and Sudie Mae Clemmer inherited them and their wealth of information.
Presswood said it worries her somewhat that the work she and the society are doing will not be preserved for future generations. “But, I believe someone will step up and carry on,” she said.
“I continue to be encouraged because the society works closely with young people,” she added, saying, “I remember that when I left teaching, someone stepped in and filled the void. I believe that will happen here.”
Presswood also praised volunteers Jo Ann Finnel, Helen Cassada and Wauneta Ledford for their work over the years with history and genealogy. Cassada and Ledford are now in their 90s and living in assisted-care facilities in Knoxville and Cleveland respectively.
Finnel is recognized for her “find-a-grave” project, titled “Resting Places.”