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Historian in the Making: How Jean Anderson Discovered a Passion for the Past

When it comes to the history of Durham County, few people know the ins and outs better than Forest resident Jean Bradley Anderson.

Born in Philadelphia in 1924, Jean grew up with a father who was very fond of local history. When she was a young girl, he built her an authentic New England style dollhouse with period furniture that he bought at Philadelphia’s sesquicentennial in 1926. This spurred her interest in historic homes, a passion which lives on to this day. And, virtually every Sunday afternoon of Jean’s childhood, her father took her along to visit significant sites around town. Jean still keeps the book in which her father wrote notes about the places they had been, alongside photos of the same.

In her youth, Jean attended private schools – first at Mrs. Jennie Wilson’s school (along with future fellow Forest resident Ned Arnett), then eight years at The Agnes Irwin School in Rosemont, Pennsylvania, and finally 10 years at Penn, earning her M.A. and completing everything but her dissertation for her Ph.D.

After 28 years of living in her hometown, Jean moved to Vermont with her husband, Carl. There, she spent much of her time taking pleasurable drives down country roads, enjoying the scenery and looking for old houses. After she and Carl started a family, these lovely drives became a way of getting their children out of the house. “They were very accommodating in the car,” Jean smiles.

While her husband worked on his Ph.D. and taught at a college in Northfield, Vermont, Jean taught a new concept, speed reading, to students at the same school. “They bought a machine called a tachistoscope, and it projected slides of numbers, phrases, and strings of words,” Jean explains. “It was [supposed] to increase the amount of information you took in at a glance, so these things were [shown] for a very quick time.”

A place in Durham

Jean’s husband finished his Ph.D. in 1955 and took a position in the English department at Duke University. The family moved down to Durham, North Carolina, not far from where The Forest now stands. Jean remembers that many roads in town were not yet paved in those days. In fact, she says, there wasn’t much traffic at all.

The tides seemed to change when Jean and her family moved to the country after 10 years on Chapel Hill Road. An old cemetery on the Andersons’ property piqued Jean’s interest in history – particularly that of the families around the place where they lived.

“We had a babysitter whose uncle had done all of his genealogical research, and he was related to everybody in the area, including the people in our graveyard,” Jean recalls. “Following his cues, I got terribly interested in following up on what he had done.”

Jean Bradley Anderson stands on a terrace holding two kittens
In this photo taken in the late 1980s, Jean stands on the terrace of the country home she shared with her husband, cradling kittens Fanny and Sandy in her arms. (Photo courtesy of Jean Bradley Anderson)

At the same time, the Andersons became involved in stopping a threat to the Eno River. In joining Margaret Nygard, the leader of the effort to stop a dam on the river, Jean led multiple hikes, wrote articles, and went with Margaret to endless meetings until the cause was won. Eno River State Park is the result.

“In the pursuit of people and the history of the people who lived along the river, I became acquainted with the manuscript room at Duke and found letters and diaries and things related to the [Eno],” Jean remembers. “These things began to gel – the genealogical and historical interests.”

A passion awakened

After Duke’s freshman program changed in 1959, Jean spent three years teaching two courses at the university until the family went on sabbatical. Afterward, she followed her heart and began establishing herself as an historian and professional genealogist. “Because so many people had ancestors who came through North Carolina, they were all writing to the courthouses to have somebody work on their ancestries,” she explains. “And that somebody was me.”

While serving in this capacity, Jean became acquainted with the villages around Durham: South Lowell, Rougemont, Red Mountain, Bahama, and others. Soon she got to know where each major local family was located, when they came to the area, how they got here, and what they did.

She fell in love with the part of Durham’s history that took place before the Civil War – when Durham wasn’t really Durham. “I had the most fun discovering Dillardsville, which sort of morphed into Prattsburg,” Jean describes. “The land was somewhat the same, though they were, in their whole, slightly different sites. Part of it overlapped. They were the forerunners of Durham.”

Jean Bradley Anderson stands inside an historic home
Jean stands by the front door inside Edgewater, an historic home built on the Hudson River near Barrytown, New York. Robert Donaldson, Jr., the second owner of the home, is the subject of Jean’s book, Carolinian on the Hudson: The Life of Robert Donaldson. (Photo courtesy of Jean Bradley Anderson)

Jean says she found this particular period of Durham’s past the most interesting, because it was all new to her. “I felt as though I was discovering something,” she says. “It was a great deal of fun. I had a lot of help from natives who knew the neighborhoods and people to talk to about different things.”

Success in authorship

As she lost herself in history and found her passion for the same, Jean penned many books, including The Kirklands of Ayr Mount; Carolinian on the Hudson: The Life of Robert Donaldson; The Campus Club of Duke University; Piedmont Plantation: The Bennehan-Cameron Family and Lands in North Carolina; and Durham County: A History of Durham County, North Carolina. The latter of these is a 596-page amalgamation of Durham’s history, beginning in the seventeenth century and stretching to the end of the twentieth. Jean spent seven years writing it, while each of her other titles took about two years each.

In addition to her own original books, Jean contributed to numerous other works, including 27 Views of Durham: The Bull City in Prose & Poetry, an anthology which features many writers within the local literary community and their individual perspectives about their city and county.

A new chapter at The Forest

In the early 2000s, Jean and her husband began thinking very seriously about their future and visited a few local continuing care retirement communities (CCRCs). The bucolic setting of their home in Orange County was peaceful and wonderful, of course, but it became apparent to the Andersons that they couldn’t stay in the country forever.

“We didn’t want to visualize ourselves in a nursing home, and some of our fellow English department friends [from Duke] had already signed up to come to The Forest, so we did the same,” Jean says.

Unfortunately, Carl Anderson passed away before the couple could move into their new home on Pickett Road, but Jean continued with their plan as anticipated. In 2004, she took up residence in a fourth floor apartment, a location that suited her because of its exposure to natural light. Her transition from her big country home to her new place at The Forest at Duke was a relatively easy one.

Jean Bradley Anderson sits in an armchair during an interview
In March 2020, Jean sits inside her fourth floor apartment at The Forest, beside a bookshelf where she keeps her father’s travel journal of their many adventures together around Philadelphia. (Photo by Lauren Young)

“I knew a lot of people already here, so it wasn’t a problem,” she explains. “I was delighted, actually, because living in the country, we had no close neighbors. [At The Forest], not much was interrupted, and many things were for the better. I felt secure.”

In addition to the neighbors she already knew and the new friends she soon made, Jean quickly discovered something else she truly loved and appreciated about life at The Forest.

“I always hated cooking. It was heaven to be in a place where I didn’t have to think about food or cooking,” she chuckles.

These days

Jean no longer actively researches or writes about history. A number of hurdles, including corneal transplants, and parking difficulties on each of the local campuses where she used to perform her research, reined this pastime in for the retired historian and genealogist. Now she spends much of her time reading and writing short memoirs about her life for her two children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren to enjoy.

To anyone who listens to her speak and recall the many details of her life and of Durham history, it soon becomes apparent that Jean is a treasure trove of knowledge. This is not her perspective, though.

“No,” she smiles humbly in response to such a statement. “I’ve just lived a long time.”

—Lauren Young, Marketing Specialist

Header image: In this photo taken by her friend Jean Blakely in early 1991, Jean Bradley 
Anderson proudly displays the first edition of her book, Durham County: A History of 
Durham, North Carolina. The book was published at Christmastime in 1990. (Photo courtesy 
of Jean Bradley Anderson)