Community celebrates historian emeritus
By the size of the crowd amassed at Georgia Public Library last Wednesday evening, you’d think a celebrity came to town.
In a way, one did.
Peter Mallett, Georgia’s 93-year-old historian emeritus, was at the center of it all on the blistering summer evening. Cars filled the parking lot and lined the edge of Route 7, their passengers making a perilous trek across the town’s busiest thoroughfare, dodging evening commuters as a plunging sun stained the sky pink.
“I have many memories of that town of Georgia where I lived,” Mallett told the crowd assembled to celebrate him. “Well, I loved it, and you people should love it.”
For 57 years, Georgia was Mallett’s home, though not his native one. In 1975, he founded the Georgia Historical Society with his late wife, Frances, who died in 2015.
Before moving to Jeffersonville in 2009, Mallett wrote the book on community service – literally: He counts “History of Georgia,” the two-tome, 830-page set he published in 2002, as his greatest achievement.
Through meticulous research, Mallett and Frances exhaustively chronicled more than two centuries of Georgia’s legacy, from 1763 to 2002.
That hefty digest and much more of Mallett’s extensive work can be found at Georgia Public Library, where Frances spent a decade as town librarian. Today, patrons can peruse Mallett’s annual town history books from 1967 to 2001; four volumes of “Georgia Memories;” carefully curated collections of diaries, postcards, maps and historical photos and invaluable records on cemeteries, farms and prominent families.
Though Mallett largely penned Georgia’s past, he didn’t shy away from planning its future. He served on the selectboard, fire department and a laundry list of committees, spearheading projects like organizing town parades, preserving storied artifacts and erecting local monuments.
An off-hand query from Mallett could result in a lasting contribution to the little Franklin County town. According to a 2009 Georgia Historical Society newsletter, Georgia’s town beach and library building are both owed to Mallett’s vision.
The library swelled with admirers last week as Mallett bopped around the front of the room, occasionally breaking from a story to find fellow Georgia legends Edmund Wilcox or Rebecca Ballard (they were both in the audience.)
Attendees regaled the crowd with stories of Mallett, all with a shared refrain: No one, it seemed, could say “no” to the man.
“I helped you write a number of history books against my will,” Ed Shamy told Mallett to raucous laughter.
His sentiment was a familiar one, heads bobbing as they recalled Mallett pull up in “that stupid little Subaru,” a bow-legged stroll across the lawn, on a mission to co-opt assistance for a newfound undertaking.
“He would not accept ‘no,’’’ Shamy said, crediting that persistence with “wondrous stuff,” a lifetime of community contributions and chronicling.
“I’m still scared of him!” he joked.
GHS director Don Vickers recalled his own recruitment to Mallett’s birding group. Admittedly, Vickers could do little more than pick out the occasional blue jay or robin, a far cry from Mallett’s charge to catalogue local species for the Audubon Society. No matter: Vickers was enlisted to cook lunch for the ragtag unit, an assignment that lasted years and deepened his own community involvement.
Mallett was “always instrumental” to Georgia, Vickers said, and he helped non-natives to care about the town.
Jean Gilmond recalled Mallett commissioned her to make welcome signs after learning she was an artist.
“I hate painting signs!” she said.
Soon, she had finished two.
A former history teacher, Ed Brehaut’s work experience marked him as an easy target for Mallett, who issued him an edict 25 years ago: “’I want you to join the historical society,’” Brehaut recalled Mallett saying. “’There’s nothing to it.’”
Brehaut tentatively agreed; today, he’s a director.
So, too, is Greg Drew, who dove into a Mallett project to staff the museum shortly after he moved to Georgia. Before he knew it, Drew was wearing Civil War-era regalia and marching in a band for the town parade.
Colin Conger told the crowd Mallett hasn’t left him alone in 30 years, saying Mallett tasked him with a new project just a month ago.
A similar visit resulted in the veterans’ monument outside town hall, a 2007 effort Conger led after asking Mallett why the town had nothing of the sort.
“He said, ‘What are you gonna do about it?’” Conger recalled.
Later, Mallett prodded him to help author a book about Georgia’s veterans. Conger said he didn’t have time, but nonetheless, he finished in six months.
Conger further reminisced about Mallett’s mission to install a sign at Gordon’s Mill. He followed Mallett to the site, only to find a 20-foot slab of wood announcing “Alexander’s Drugstore.” How could they possibly rework that to read “Gordon’s Mill?”
“’You figure it out, you got a wood shop,’” Conger was told.
And so it went, project after project, even after Mallett moved out of town.
Pat Burke, who spent six years with fellow resident Tony Heinlein painstakingly chronicling every ancient road in town, drew inspiration from Mallett’s body of work, all of similar methodical ilk: Once, Mallett documented where each Georgia resident lived on three separate maps, 10 years apart, GHS director Cindy Ploof said.
When Burke and Heinlein’s endeavor grew arduous, they reminded themselves Mallett would one day see the map they were toiling over. They hinted a book on the project might just be dedicated to Mallett.
Before the night was over, GHS directors bestowed Mallett with gifts – small but meaningful tokens of his legacy, like a wooden plate hand-carved by Drew from a 150-year-old maple tree on the Wilcox homestead, or a homemade wooden pen Conger chiseled from a Georgia Plains sugar maple.
“I wished I had your vision; I wished I had your energy. You were an inspiration to me,” Dian Duranleau told Mallett before turning to address the crowd: “Knowing him has made a big difference.”
A collective “hear! hear!” resounded.