Historical Society Celebrates 90 Years

Governor and Mrs. O. Max Gardner joined 10,000 others in celebration of New Bern’s 1929 Pageant
Governor and Mrs. O. Max Gardner joined 10,000 others in celebration of New Bern’s 1929 Pageant

Founded in 1923, Now Entering its 10th Decade

Nineteen twenty-three was an interesting year. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President following the death of Warren G. Harding. Time Magazine was launched. The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Ten Commandments came out of Hollywood.  In Egypt, Howard Carter opened King Tutankhamun’s burial chamber. Mt. Aetna erupted in Sicily. The first 24 Hour LeMans race was run in France. In New Bern we were in the middle of the Roaring 20s, just  58 years past the Civil War and 4 years past World War I.

On April 19, 1923, a notice appeared in the New Bern Sun which read:  “Persons interested in the organization of a Historical Society in New Bern are asked to be present at a meeting to be held at the home of Mrs. Richard Duffy, on Johnson Street, tonight at 8:30 o’clock.” An enthusiastic group of 19 met that evening forming the organization whose aim was “the preservation of the wealth of historic material to be found in New Bern for future generations.” The names of those present echo many families still in New Bern today and those names appear on many of the historic homes still standing.  The first President was Judge Romulus A. Nunn, First Vice President was Mrs. Richard Duffy. Other New Bern families represented were the Spencers, Hollisters, Wards, and more. Later, Gertrude Caraway became a major player in the establishment of the Historical Society and the movement to rebuild Tryon Palace.

Attendance at each meeting was taken by roll call. Each member was to respond, as they were called, with an interesting fact about New Bern history. As the Society began to collect information, each item was made in triplicate: one for the Society, one for the State office in Raleigh, and one for the local library. This collection became the basis of the historical collection in the Craven County Library today.

The Society grew through the 20s, and in 1929, under the leadership of Mrs. Duffy, the Society initiated plans that resulted in the wildly successful New Bern Historic Celebration and Pageant of 1929.  In attendance were the Secretary of the Swiss Legation in Washington, D.C., North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner, top national military brass, members of Congress, and former Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.  Joining them were some 10,000 other spectators.  Mrs. Reynolds of Winston-Salem underwrote the expenses, advancing $5000 with the provision that any funds remaining be returned to her.  After the event, $3500 was sent to Mrs. Reynolds, who returned the check “for the restoration of Tryon Palace”.  That was the first donation in that effort.

Many pieces of New Bern history remain in its collection.  In 1963, Mr. John R. Taylor, then president of the Society, and grandfather of current Curator, Dr. Jim Hodges, presented a ledger from 1797 which had belonged to John Oliver.  In it was an account of the duel between Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight and John Wright Stanly which Oliver had witnessed.

There are many letters from Miss Gertrude Caraway, driving force behind the Tryon Palace restoration.  One in 1957 encouraging members of the Palace Commission to join the Historical Society, and reminding the president to send membership cards before the next meeting.  Another, written in 1983, corrected an account of the first donation to the Palace effort.

The “life” of the New Bern Historical Society mirrored the happenings in the country’s history.  With the stock market crash in 1929 and the Depression, survival became the order of the day and historical matters took a back seat.  In 1941 the society re-activated, but was again suspended during the war.  Finally in 1952, lead by Mr. John R. Taylor the society once again organized, this time to continue its efforts to the present.

Through the years the Society has acquired a number of properties that it now works to steward, and maintain.  In 1953 they bought the Attmore-Oliver House from the nephews of Miss Mary Oliver, and restored the worn structure.  In 2007, they acquired the New Bern Battlefield, an area where the battle of New Bern was fought, which had remained untouched since the Civil War. Now there is a Visitor’s Center and pathways which enable the visitor to travel the battlefield without damaging the historic redans.

Today’s mission for the Historical Society is to promote and celebrate New Bern and its heritage through events and education.  Events throughout the year such as Ghostwalk, Lunch and Learn Lectures, Spring Historic Homes and Gardens Tour make possible the upkeep of the facilities and the continuation of educational programs.

Current Executive Director, Lynne Harakal is excited to begin the 10th decade of the organization. “We know the founding members would be proud of what had been accomplished in these 90 years, and we look forward to even more as we enter our 10th decade.”  Current President Nelson McDaniel  thanks everyone who has given of their time and talents  reminds that “much of our success is due to our Board of Directors and our many volunteers.” If you are interested in joining the New Bern Historical Society call 252-638-8558 or go to www.NewBernHistorical.org

Submitted by: Kathy Morrison on behalf of Lynne Harakal, New Bern Historical Society