William Sumner Jenkins, Pigskin, and Dynamite: Motivations and Reflections


“…Our aim would be to compile and preserve the record of the fortitude which had gone into the building of a nation, for the benefit of more stately mansions in the world of the future.”


William S. Jenkins on the Microfilm Collection of Early State Records


As you may know, LLMC, with the financial support of Patron Libraries, is digitizing the Microfilm Collection of Early State Records (ESR). A joint collaboration between the Library of Congress and the University of North Carolina, the original project was spearheaded by William Sumner Jenkins in the 1940s. Thus far the project has yielded some interesting and historically significant results for LLMC and our community of researchers which we have highlighted in previous blogs.


The collection itself may shed light on state and federal constitutional questions we face today. But what personal motivations did William Sumner Jenkins have for completing the project?  After all, it truly was his life’s work. And, what was it like for him to actually compile the collection?


Thanks to a recent donation from Georgia Chadwick, former Law Library of Louisiana Director, LLMC received documents Jenkins authored after he was finished compiling the collection which shed some light on these questions. One is a 25-year retrospective on compiling the collection from a research perspective. The other, which will be the focus of this piece, is Jayhawking Over the State Records Microfilm Project. This collection of notes contains autobiographical information and some humorous recollections of Jenkins’ memories viewed through the prism of his anthropomorphized leather bag, Pigskin, and the van he drove around the country named Dynamite.


Born in 1902 William Sumner Jenkins grew up in rural North Carolina. In Jayhawking he points out “One surely must be born with a love of history in him to have the impulse for historical research…” and that his views about history likely came from childhood influences.  He mentions his experiences visiting the lone Mexican war survivor in his county, Mr. Will Clanton, and listening to his stories about the battle of Chapultepec.


Jenkins further describes his early exposure to history in detail. His father was a long-time subscriber to The Youth’s Companion and his mother could often be seen reading historical biographies. Jenkins’ father was proud of the fact that Senator Hiram Rhoades Revels once stopped to see his grandmother on his way home from Washington DC. His family also must have proudly discussed their immigrant heritage. Jenkins mentions how his great grandfather moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania and would later build the first cotton mill in the south.


These experiences planted the seed for a lifelong interest in history and government. But what kind of work actually went into compiling the Early State Records? Jenkin’s descriptions of his life on the road while compiling the collection are fascinating and he delivers much of the information through the prism of Pigskin and Dynamite.


Jenkins started compiling the collection before World War II but had to put the project on pause until after the war. He completed the eastern states before the war then patiently moved on to the western states afterward.


In a time before interstates, driving the bus to places such as Carson City, Jackson Hole, and Boise must have been a challenge especially when laden with filming equipment and luggage. He mentions how proud “Dynamite” the van was when she navigated a rough road going over the Continental Divide.


A labor of love for Jenkins, he also seems to have struggled with finding balance in his work. At one point he laments how Pigskin would remind him to do things in the middle of the night interfering with his sleep. He tried keeping Pigskin at the office at nights so his mind wouldn’t race but it didn’t work. He continued to think about the collection while lying in bed and based on his descriptions of the background research the project entailed this may have even been necessary. It took him years to create the guides and checklists he would eventually use while on the road.


From his recollections, it is clear this was not easy work. Long nights were spent filming documents found in libraries, archives, and private collections. Sometimes he missed documents in locations and, frustrated, had to return to film them. The time on the road took its toll too. Jenkins’ “overworked gas-accelerating big toe” became irritated. Humorously, he talks about soaking his foot in salt water while he enjoyed a highball alongside his friend’s young children who mimicked him by soaking their feet and enjoying Coca-Cola.


Jenkins love of history comes through in these notes and his other writings. At times, he compares his work to snipe hunting but it is clear the effort, time, and strain were all worthwhile to him. He describes the proud moment when he went back to Washington with several hundred more reels of film than had been required when he requested the funds for the project.


Years after the completion of the project itself Jenkins would author two finding aids meant to assist researchers in navigating the collection. His notes in Jayhawking shed some light on this thought process as he neared the end of the project.


He considered having catalog cards made for every single title in the collection but that would have been too time consuming. Jenkins states that Pigskin gave the bibliographical option full consideration but that since no bibliographer had detailed familiarity with the collection and Jenkins himself did not have the time nor training to do such work himself they would simply have to proceed without such tools.


In the 25-year retrospective Jenkins discusses the historical significance of the collection, its usefulness to researchers, and how it might be better used in the future. He describes Early State Records as being “in large degree a frozen asset”. Nonetheless, he points out a prescient point made decades earlier by his late colleague Adelaide Hasse. She presciently stated that the development of mechanical finding aids and the progress of visual education are each an opportune invitation to make possible the wide distribution of these early records of our country.


After becoming more familiar with Jenkins, it is clear he had a love of history, a productive, imagination, and vision for how these documents would and could be used in the future. It is unfortunate he is not here to see Early State Records cataloged and digitized. But at least we know this is exactly what Pigskin, Dynamite, and Jenkins wanted when they put years of work into compiling this collection.


For reference we are providing an excerpt of William Sumner Jenkins’ notes along with this blog article.


Kurt Meyer

Manager of Global Content Development and Preservation


Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here*.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many rare and little seen documents, such as broadsides, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

William Sumner Jenkins' notes