“Would you like to add any paddling or skeet shooting to your reservation?” the deep, Southern voice drawled on the other end of the line. “Um, no, thank you,” I repsonded. “I won’t be staying long enough to enjoy any of that.”
It was the first time I had been offered skeet-shooting when making a bed-and-breakfast reservation. I was on my way to Halifax, NC—population 234 people as of 2010. In other words, when New Hanover High School has fire drills, for about 15 minutes our front yard on Princess Street has a bigger population than the seat of county government for Halifax County.
I was headed there to see one of North Carolina’s outdoor historical dramas, “First for Freedom,” which chronicles the events surrounding the Halifax Resolves. Though the rest of the country is enamored with the 4th of July and Independence Day, in Halifax April 12, 1776 is the day to be remembered. On that day, in North Carolina, the first official call for independence from Great Britain by any colony in the Americas, was issued.
Halifax thrived as an inland port on the Roanoke River. It was a center for commerce and government throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, but the railroad passed the community by, and they saw their importance as a center of commerce begin to dwindle; I-95 only exacerbated the issue. The only two “major industries” in Halifax are the county government offices (Aside: It must be terrifying that government paperwork is seen as economic salvation) and historic Halifax, which is operated by the NC Department of Cultural Resources. It’s like Williamsburg but shrunk down and abandoned.
When I signed the register I was the first visitor of the day and it was 2:30 p.m. A good portion of the historic area has been preserved: houses are open for guided tours and other buildings offer self-guided tours. The museum for the area’s history is surprisingly well done, and tries to address the hardships facing women, African Americans—both slaves and freed men—and Native Americans. After the exhibits and a couple of purchases at the gift shop (a book on an early African American poet from the area and some Halifax resolves magnets), I asked the nice young man at the desk where to get a bit to eat. “The Exxon station has a grill but go back to 95; that’s where everything is,” he said.
I was crest fallen at the idea of heading back to fast food on the highway. Surely the seat of county government had a lunch counter near by for hungry government employees? I found a street I recognized—not because I had ever visited Halifax before, but because it looked just like Front Street did in my childhood. There were big, beautiful historic buildings with recessed glass entryways and wonderful trim with faded, chipping paint. Every couple of buildings seemed to be boarded up, and the only store that appeared open for business was an antique store.
When I walked into the store, a woman was busy wrapping up china and boxing it for the standard ubiquitous couple from Florida. She informed me everything was on sale. Apparently, she recently had sold the building and was trying to empty out. I asked about the sandwich and pizza place across the way. “They’ve gone up to the lake,” she explained. There had been four people working in the kitchen and some front-of-house people, but they went up to Lake Gaston and opened “where the people were.” All the empty store fronts seemed to have similar stories. I sighed and got back in my car, hoping this lovely bit of street would have the same future as Front Street—to become a beacon of tourism and regeneration for the area.
Halifax didn’t have any lodging, so I had booked a room in nearby Enfield at the Bellamy Manor and Gardens Bed and Breakfast (former home of cousins to our Bellamy family on Fifth Avenue in Wilmington). The house has the same floor plan, but it has had a lot of modernization of plumbing and cooking facilities. As soon as I entered, I just knew where everything would be; it all seemed so familiar. It is currently owned by a lovely couple named Wayne and Suzann Anderson, though their dog Cozy seems to run the house. Wayne grew up in the area and left after high school because there were no jobs.
“When I left you could only live in Enfield if you built a house,” Anderson recalled. After moving up north, marrying and pursuing a profession, he and his bride moved back to be closer to his 85-year-old mother. He pointed out that in the late ‘60s the township had 130 farmers—now there are only 18. “Eighteen farmers do not provide a living for a town,” he added.
He cited the change in labor-intensive to chemical- and machinery-intensive farming as diminishing the opportunities for people to live in the area. A farm used to have 20 to 30 people on it: tenant farmers, family, hired hands, etc.
Rather than dwelling on the past and the problems presented by current circumstances, the Andersons have been hard at work trying to see what the future could look like. When they opened the bed and breakfast, they offered paddling packages and marketed the house as a destination retreat. It was booked at full capacity for the first 387 days straight.
“What happened was all these 20- and 30-somethings would leave the kids with Grandma for a quick getaway form Raleigh or Virginia, and they’d come here,” he explained. The few other businesses in Enfield were stunned by this sudden influx of tourism money in the hands of young working professionals who thought Carolina peanuts were the most amazing thing they had ever seen—let alone tasted! (Freshly roasted, still-warm peanuts or, even better, boiled peanuts in the bottom of a glass Coke bottle is an experience worth writing home about.) The response from their neighbors led the Andersons and a few other people to start work on an economic development organization for Enfield. It’s sort of like what Wilmington Downtown Inc. was meant to be.
The drama, “First for Freedom” also is trying to look to the future. First preformed for the bicentennial, it resided for years at an outdoor amphitheater on the state historic site. After Hurricane Floyd, the amphitheater was condemned and the show has had an itinerant existence. It’s been performed on the courthouse steps, and it brought them to their current location at the 4-H Rural Life Center. Over and over cast members lamented they wish I had seen the show at the amphitheater, where attendence would be 1,500 people.
I attended opening night a few weeks ago, alongside an audience of 18 people. There are members of the cast who have been with the show since its inception; I was introduced to a young lady who made her debut at 9 months old. Fourteen years later, she is the follow-spot operator. “This story is so important, and people don’t know about it,” Frankie King, the production’s director, exclaimed. “It’s on the state flag—April 12, 1776—and people don’t know about it!”
It’s obvious the cast feels an obligation to share this bit of history. Apparently, the state of North Carolina agrees; the amphitheater is scheduled for renovations in time for the 40th anniversary of the show next year. Much of the play’s action takes place on the town’s green or common. The amphitheater literally slopes downhill from the common, and puts the action in the same place where people gathered to hear the first official call for independence from Great Britain 240 years ago. What made Halifax important was its contribution to trade and economics; what keeps it important is its ability to teach us who we are as people and how we want to shape our own future.