Thank you Mary Claire Engstrom



Mary Claire Engstrom, 1906 - 1997

May, 2017 marked the 20th anniversary of the death of one of Hillsborough' historic preservation heroes, Mary Claire Engstrom, who was central to many efforts in the 1960's and 1970's to preserve Hillsborough's historic places.

A native of Missouri, Mrs. Engstrom moved to Hillsborough when she and her husband, UNC French professor Alfred Engstrom, purchased the Nash-Hooper house (today a National Historic Landmark).  She quickly became a leader in documenting, photgraphing and preserving over a hundred old or endangered structures in the area.   She conducted an important documentation of the cemeteries of Orange County, and led the establishment of the Hillsborough Historical Society in 1963.

As the first chair of the Historic Hillsborough Commission, she led the efforts to preserve the Burwell School property, restore the buildings, and open it as a historic site.   This included a meeting in her home in the when 13 members of the Commission each wrote personal checks for $1,000 towards securing a loan on the property; 11 years later the members met on the front lawn of the Burwell School and burned the mortgage, rejoicing that they had raised enough money locally to secure the property outright.  This dedication has continued to the present day; members of the Commission contribute several thousand hours annually to the operation of the site and all funding is raised locally.

Mary Claire Engstrom conducted extensive research into the Burwell family and the girls who attended the School, which   operated 1837-1857.   She poured through deed books and birth/death records, scanned old newspaper images, wrote to descendants of students, and carefully transcribed Mrs. Burwell's diaries and letters for information on the operation of the School, the life of "the village" as Hillsborough was called, and the young ladies who were under her tutelage.  All of this work, conducted without the benefit of the Internet and such ubiquitous aids as Google,, etc. resulted in a beautifully written and readable book, which she complete in 1979.  The Book of Burwell Students, the Lives of Educated Women in the Antebellum South was finally published in 2007, ten years after Mrs. Engstrom's death,  when the Historic Hillsborough Commission was able to publish it with a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  It's a unique accomplishement and publication -- no other examination of an entire student body of a school has been found.   The Research Committee of the Historic Hillsborough Commission has subsequently dedicated many hours of effort to continue Mrs. Engstrom's work, finding more information on Burwell students and building a database (open to the public) which is accessible through this website under "research."  This work is ongoing and engrossing and includes photographing and documenting the graves and homes of the students.


For all her dedication, scholarship and accomplishments, Mary Claire Engstrom is owed the admiration and gratitude of all who work to preserve the historic places, buildings, cemeteries and human history of Hillsborough and Orange County.

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