New Bern, NC – Not many folks are around to remember 1923. Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as President following the death of Warren G. Harding. Time Magazine was launched and Hollywood produced The Ten Commandments. King Tut’s burial chamber was opened in Egypt while Mt. Aetna erupted in Sicily. Here in New Bern we were in the middle of the Roaring 20s, just 58 years past the Civil War and four 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 nineteen 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. Minnette Chapman Duffy. Other New Bern families represented were the Spencers, Hollisters, and Wards. Later, Gertrude Carraway became a major player in the development 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 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 Kellenberger Room of the New Bern- Craven County Public Library today.
The Society grew and in 1929, under the leadership of Minnette Chapman 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. Kate B. 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 back to Mrs. Reynolds, who returned the check “for the restoration of Tryon Palace”. That was the first donation in that effort – a momentous turning point in New Bern history.
Many pieces of New Bern history remain in the Society’s collection, including over 6000 photos, letters, and artifacts. In 1963, Mr. John R. Taylor, then Society president, and grandfather of our current Curator, Jim Hodges, presented a ledger from 1797 which had belonged to John Oliver. In it was Oliver’s eye-witness account of the duel between Governor Richard Dobbs Spaight and John Wright Stanly. There are many letters from Miss Gertrude Caraway, driving force behind the Tryon Palace restoration.
Through the years the Society has acquired a number of historic properties that it now works to steward and maintain. In 1953 the Attmore-Oliver House was purchased from the nephews of Miss Mary Taylor Oliver, and over many years the worn structure was lovingly restored. In 1996, the Society acquired the New Bern Battlefield, where a key part of the first Battle of New Bern was fought, which had remained untouched since the Civil War. Over the past twenty years, the Society transformed it from one of the Civil War Trust’s “Ten Most Endangered” battlefields in the US to a state-of-the-art, award-winning tourist destination.
The Historical Society’s mission today is to promote and celebrate New Bern and its heritage through events and education. Programs throughout the year like Ghostwalk, Lunch & Learn programs, historical lectures, Heritage Homes Tour, and Battlefield Adventure Day make possible the stewardship of the facilities and the continuation of educational programs.
For nearly 100 years, the Historical Society has served New Bern despite major wars, recessions, hurricanes, and now a global pandemic. Executive Director, Mickey Miller adds, “We feel confident that the founding members would be proud of what has been accomplished. Our success is due to the support of our members – now numbering over 1000 – the time and talents of our tireless volunteers, and the vision of the Society’s leadership.”
For information, call 252-638-8558 or go to NewBernHistorical.org or Facebook.com/NewBernHistoricalSociety.
Submitted by: Kathy Morrison on behalf of Mickey Miller, Executive Director, New Bern Historical Society