A Community of Many Voices
Press Releases
Tuesday, June 11, 2019 08:00 AM

June 11, 2019 - Chapel Hill and Orange County, like many areas surrounding a major university, are known to have their own brand of unique characters. It’s not impossible to see a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize or a Pulitzer, a rock star, or a literary icon perambulating down Franklin or Churton Street.


Preservation Man

There are others too, less well-known but worthy of note and celebration. Ernest “Ernie” Dollar is one of those. A preservationist, activist, a re-enactor, videographer, storyteller. and public historian. His philosophy? “Know where you’ve been in order to grow in a way that keeps the character of our community alive.” Ernie has served as the executive director of the Preservation Society of Chapel Hill, and currently he is director of the City of Raleigh Museum. But he’s back in Orange County, where he got his start in museums, serving as the Chair of the Orange County Historical Museum.

Ernest Dollar, Chair of the Orange County Historical Museum

The Balancing Act

At the heart of many communities today is the argument between how much historical architecture to preserve while making room for new developments – in other words, how to preserve the past and prepare for the future at the very same time.

Dollar will tell you that he supports the “preserve more/balance growth” argument. A conclusion he has drawn from watching Orange County evolve since he was a kid.


Gravely Sanatorium

“My grandparents moved to Carrboro in the 1920s and lived on Carr Street,” he says. “My grandfather was a campus policeman, and my grandmother and mother worked in the Gravely Sanatorium in Chapel Hill. So as a boy, I spent every Sunday in Carrboro eating fried chicken and wandering around town exploring its hidden places.” Dollar’s connection to Orange County reaches back over 250 years.

“My ancestors arrived in the county in 1775, just in time to participate in the American Revolution. One of these, Elijah Dollar, was captured in South Carolina fighting and thrown in jail in Hillsborough by Lord Cornwallis – and escaped.” 


Another Brick in the Wall

Maybe it’s in his DNA. But something grand and passionate fuels his exhortations at podiums across the county. “Orange County has the potential to be on the cutting edge of redefining the historical narrative for a new generation,” he says. And he knows how to accomplish it.

One brick at time. 

Ernie has worked to raise money for historic institutions, restore murals on Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s historic buildings, save old neighborhoods, and increase the number and variety of walking and biking tours throughout Orange County – all because he sees our historic institutions as assets rather than burdens.

But Ernie’s love of historic preservation also contains an argument for economic development. He believes more visitors and investors are attracted to areas that preserve their communities.

Ernie Dollar in his storytelling element

Learning from Other Cities

“It’s easy to point to major cities that have successfully capitalized on heritage tourism, from Philadelphia’s Freedom Trail, which is one of the easiest way-finding trails in America, and Charleston's guided tour options that provide exceptional and unique experiences for visitors.” He believes the rich and diverse heritage of Orange County is more valuable than most people think. 

“Closer to home, Raleigh's Historic District Commission created a great walking tour app of its historic buildings, and Durham marks “Black Wall Street” with a series of public sculptures. These are easy solutions with big impacts,” he says.

More than just history for history’s sake, Dollar believes that past is important to guide the future. “History is an important tool for social justice, economic development, and fostering a higher standard of living for communities.”


More than an Internet

Yet places like museums and historical gathering spots provide citizens access to places where they can learn about histories – honorable histories, as well as blemished.

Currently, safe spaces for difficult community conversations are under-supported.

In the absence of these places, Dollar points to the internet as the new and sole educator of our complex past, which often removes the human connection to storytelling.

Ernie has spent his career bringing the past alive and demonstrating its value far beyond names, dates, and facts of yesterday. Our historic institutions fill this much-needed gap, reminding us of who we are, have far we’ve come, and who we strive to be. 

But this much is certain: historic places are not renewable. Once gone, they’re gone — they’re lost forever. For Orange County, it’s easy to see that an investment in the past today brings the promise of a better tomorrow.


Ways to Explore Local History