I heard it before I saw it, like a low-grade buzzing drum over my left should the sound pulsed. Turning, I saw a wall of rain moving straight for me like a CGI movie effect. Literally, in front of me was blue sky, yet moving inexorably, relentlessly toward my parked car was a wall of gray static. I felt the first few drops on my arm and dived back into the car. Within seconds the gravel parking lot was a lake with stray bits of rock floating by. There was a 4 p.m. curtain call for the show I had come to see at the outdoor ampitheatre that would be moved to 8 p.m. Should I just give up now and go home? I wondered.
I felt like I spent so much time in Chatham and Alamance counties this summer that I began joking to friends that I was going to have my voter registration moved. I planned to be there for two nights to see “The Sword of Peace” and “The Pathway to Freedom,” back-to-back outdoor dramas performed at Snow Camp in Alamance County. Regular readers of encore know that I spent much of this summer traveling to all the outdoor dramas in North Carolina. There are two scourges of outdoor drama: mosquitoes and rain. While bug spray will remedy the situation, we just have to accept that Mother Nature is ultimately in charge of weather. The only true rainout I had all summer was the first night of “The Sword of Peace.” Scheduling-wise, if I left the show, I was going to have to come back because I had commitments in Wilmington on the night of the next performance.”
Snow Camp is more than just an amphitheater; it truly has historically significant buildings as part of their museum. They depict the life and growth of the first Quaker community in North Carolina: the first meeting house, school, farm-tool museum, clothes from the residents, post office, and doctors office, etc. At around 5:30 p.m., a lovely young lady of about high-school age showed up and began unlocking the buildings and turning on the lights of the displays inside. The rain had slowed to a steady, light drizzle, and I got out of the car for a narrated tour. But she couldn’t answer whether there was going to be a show that night. Apparently, they try really hard to not cancel performances and will wait up until 8:30 p.m. to call off the show if need be.
“Well, you have to admire that kind of determination,” I agreed. True to their word, at 8:30 the stage manager came to the covered deck above the seating area where the audience was gathered singing folk songs along with the pre-show entertainer to announce because of the renewed deluge (and lightning) the night’s performance would be canceled.
While planning my trip(s) to Snow Camp and its environs, I have to admit: I couldn’t figure out how it survived as a tourist attraction. For example, there is no lodging nearby; the closest place I could find to stay was in the next county over. So, I stayed in Pittsboro, which has gone through an interesting renaissance as a result of becoming a retirement mecca and farming community. Besides the Woodwright’s School on Main Street there is a wonderful bookstore, a brewery, restaurants, art galleries, and all the charm for which people move to small towns in the South.
My driving directions from Pittsborro should have taken between a half-hour and 45 minutes, depending on the time of day and traffic. At one point, I got to an intersection involving the state highway and saw a hand-painted sign to my left notifying people that the outdoor drama was 8 miles along the road. That wasn’t entirely accurate; after 8 miles, I was prompted to turn onto another road, then after a bit, a smaller road, then the gravel parking lot. Easy to find it is not. But, once past the ticket gate, a series of walkways leads to one of the most striking and beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen. It’s not opulent like Thalian Hall; carved into a clearing in the woods, the amphitheater has Mother Nature on display as the most beautiful scenery imaginable—and the spot I was standing was actually the site of the battle in “The Sword of Peace” and the journey in “The Pathway to Freedom.”
“The Sword of Peace” looks at the Revolutionary War in the Piedmont of North Carolina and the Quaker community that settled there. “The Pathway to Freedom” depicts the Quakers’ commitment to abolition and the coming of the Civil War to the area. What is overwhelming as soon as stepping foot onto the grounds is the love that radiates from the place. Though blood was spilled there, and struggles have permeated as long as we have recorded history in the area, people also have loved it tremendously. A motif in “The Sword of Peace” is the British soldiers searching the area for Simon’s gold (the Quaker Mill owner whose home was there). They can’t find it in spite of digging all over the place.
The Snow Camp Outdoor Theatre was the life work of James Wilson, whose grandchildren are continuing his legacy now that he has passed. He was an interesting person to have dedicated himself to outdoor drama: He didn’t come out of a theatre, arts or writing background. He didn’t write the script for either show, but rather hired playwrights for both pieces. However, he had a great love of the place, the people and the heritage of the Quakers’ work. In spite of humidity, mosquitoes and living in single-wide trailers miles from anywhere, performers return year after year from all over the country to work with the shows. It is inexplicable that people are drawn to this place, though it is completely remote.
After my third trip to Alamance and Chatham counties to see the shows this summer, I knew why they had succeeded and why the theatre had continued to draw people since 1973. Just like the British soldiers in the show, it was Simon’s gold drawing people back. Wilson—who is reported to have mortgaged his home numerous times to keep the shows going—the family members who run the box office, concessions and a living-history museum demonstrate love and devotion that has been lavished on this place that the soldiers’ couldn’t put in a box and haul away: That is the real gold.
Walking through Pittsboro, talking with people at the Woodwright’s School and the new business owners with a restaurant and art gallery, I am reminded that it is that level of dedication that makes a dream come alive and a community succeed. I drove through many other almost-abandoned former towns in North Carolina this summer, saddened by the boarded-up houses and dilapidated buildings. It isn’t just that people are leaving those communities that is so sad, it’s that feeling of despair rather than the aspiration and joy that should be present where people make their homes.
Coming back to Wilmington afterward—to the hustle and bustle of our area—it made the focus and intensity of the ambition that drives this community stand out to me. Would I be willing to mortgage my home for a dream? Of course! Rather than feeling the strain and the need that a decision like that can engender, I realized I pity people more who don’t have anything they love enough to do that. For me, the bookstore is not just a business. For those of us lucky enough to get up in the morning and work toward our dreams, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to make them real. That’s why Wilmington is such an amazing place to live: The dreamers are here and walking the streets. Unlike the soldiers, I didn’t just find Simon’s gold. I got to take a piece of it home with me.