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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: How Brunswick Town and Small Business Saturday has Gwenyfar thinking about Thanksgiving

In the canon of American mythology, the first Thanksgiving is paramount. Every school child learns it like catechism. With Thanksgiving approaching, I decided to make good on another Live Local resolution: visit Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson. At first this seem like an odd segue, but Brunswick Town emerged in the wake of the Tuscarora War, which pushed the Tuscarora Native Americans from the area. 

HISTORICAL REMINDERS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM: Gwenyfar Rohler visited Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson but got reminders of the entrepreneurial spirit that propels the American Dream. Photo courtesy of Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site.

HISTORICAL REMINDERS OF THE AMERICAN DREAM: Gwenyfar Rohler visited Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson but got reminders of the entrepreneurial spirit that propels the American Dream. Photo courtesy of Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson State Historic Site.

Brunswick Town neighbors Orton Plantation was sponsored by “King” Roger Moore of Orton and his brother Maurice Moore. The town flourished from the 1720s until The Revolution. Visitors can see excavated foundations of homes from the town.

Archeological work, led by Stanley South in the mid-20th century, shows Brunswick Town largely was a trading community. Two royal governors lived there: Arthur Dobbs and William Tryon (until Tryon Palace was completed in New Bern). So what was seen is less a hard scrabble farming community and more of a trading area. Ships came into port and naval stores were exported. Essentially, entrepreneurship was the name of the game. Whether on the large, well-connected scale of the Moore family or the local tailor, this was an area which grew and flourished with focus on enterprise.

Though our school books say the lofty need for religious freedom brought early settlers to the Americas (an idea we seem to struggle with making real, even to this day), export of naval stores and agricultural products drove settlement of our area. Part of this meditation is my entrepreneur’s mind, which assesses and calculates as I go through the world. I can’t turn it off, it’s just there like a constant chorus: Where are all the pieces of the supply chain? What is the mark up? What is the risk factor? Money lending versus capital expenditure?  

Perhaps it is also the approaching holiday retail season and Small Business Saturday, so these matters are closer to my mind than usual. Walking around Brunswick Town I realize having to encourage people to embrace local trade would have been as absurd to this community as having to encourage people to use trash pick-up would be now; so obvious and part of everyday life, to bring it up would only elicit looks of confusion. But, here we are almost 300 years later, asking each other to support our neighbors and our communities before we send money out of them. We’ve gotten on the other side of the Great Recession, but uncertainty hangs in the balance: Where are we going? Who are we going to be as a community? When Small Business Saturday rolls around, it’s a chance to remind each other of these questions.

Walking through the home sites nestled among our swampy forests, I couldn’t help but meditate upon “home” and “home place.” The first foundation of a house I came to was about the size of the increasingly popular tiny house, or “tumble weed,” suited for the back of a trailer. Perhaps they were on my mind more and more after having recently read Dee Williams’ memoir, “The Big Tiny.” It was about building and living in a tiny house and the odd phenomenon of Americans yearning for smaller, simpler lives exemplified by the tiny house movement. The foundation of this house would have fit inside the living room of my childhood home. Seeing the hearth and where the stairs for the porch would be, it could imagine living rather comfortably in the winter with a roaring fire. It was good preparation for the long six-room building that may have been an inn, or a commercial establishment like a tailor shop. At first glance each room looked unbelievably cramped, but doing some quick mental math I realized they were the same size as my first dorm room in college—a space I shared with another human being.

Slowly a dawning realization came: Not only has personal space changed greatly, the understanding of how interdependent we are as a community for survival has changed. Yes, Brunswick Town looks idyllic nestled on the banks of the Cape Fear, with Spanish moss hanging from trees and a gentle breeze blowing. A lovely forest surrounds it, which—though a source of sustenance (fire wood, food, building materials, pitch, tar, etc.)—was also filled with danger. Even today there are signs around the property cautioning about the close presence of wildlife. Part of why it took so long for me to get here was I kept trying to bring Hilda, my beautiful canine travel companion. Looking at those signs, I pictured Hilda and an alligator tangling, and it stopped my breath.

No matter how much we try to push nature back and tame it, we are always at her mercy. It is the bounty of nature which made our area desirable and prosperous. We had naval stores available from tar, pitch, masts from tree trunks, and turpentine. I still try and figure out how to find balance between meeting my needs with as much as is available to me from our beautiful, abundant area while not harming and taking advantage of it irreparably. Compared to the crowded, foggy, smelly streets of London at the time, anyone who had seen life there and disembarked at Brunswick Town must have thought they had found paradise.

This time of year is so emotional for me: Small Business Saturday is an amazing idea, and that it has become part of our lexicon blows my mind. But I look at what entrepreneurship has meant to our area from the very beginning, and I wonder why it seems to have lost its importance and cache? Why are large entities not invested with a community so much more sought after (with tax breaks and public support) than businesses that really make daily life worthwhile? Kids’ sports teams, charitable events, sponsorships, investment in preservation of our city’s core—these are causes benefitting daily from small businesses. These are values small businesses have long invested in and stood for.

Looking at the ballast stone foundations for the home sites made me wonder about the hands which unloaded those stones. Were they hands of free men or slaves? Indentured servants? Who built the foundations, selecting stones for size and fit? I wondered at the care which put these foundations together that they could be found and unearthed in the late 1950s.

I’ve spent a lot of hands-on time lately with my own family house, marveling that two generations ago indentured servants arrived from Holland, not speaking a word of English, and my parents made reality their hopes for the “American dream.” The classic immigrants’ story …  the sense of awe that what home is and how we care for it doesn’t change from generation to generation. Now more than ever, we need to think about investing in our homes, communities, and make a commitment to a future. Brunswick Town is actually a good example of what happens with neglect: The seat of government moved, and with it the money and influence that flowed into the area went away, too. It became a ghost town, a shell of its former self.

For all our idealistic talk about the founding of this country, the reality is it was founded upon (and always has been driven by) economic considerations. We are no different from the rest of the world in that respect.   

My walking meditation brought me back to the parking lot, to the present, where a family was meeting a photographer to shoot holiday card pictures among scenic paths of yesteryear. Another small business at work. I smiled, and marveled at the beautiful juxtaposition of history and now. Somehow we are still reaping rewards of those who came here 300 years ago and worked hard for a better life. I still don’t entirely understand the answers to the questions that arise in the gentle breezes surrounding Brunswick Town, but their presence is perhaps more important than the answers.

Brunswick Town and Fort Anderson will celebrate “An 18th Century Christmas” on December 11, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. (www.nchistoricsites.org/brunswic/brunswic.htm).

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