The Navassa Guano Company

This is a photograph of the Navassa Guano Company’s factory circa 1905. The landmark fertilizer company was located 5 miles north of Wilmington, N.C., on the northwest branch of the Cape Fear River. The sprawling complex included, left to right, the main line of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad, which crossed the Brunswick River by the plant, a sulfuric acid factory and, behind it, the fertilizer factory proper.

Finding Edna Ferber’s Showboat

I don’t know how the great American novelist, short story writer and playwright Edna Ferber heard about the little river town of Winton, N.C. But I know she did. In a collection of her research notes that I found at Yale’s Beinecke Library when I was in New Haven, Conn. last summer, she scratched the following: Winton, N.C.—The Croatans, relic of the lost Roanoke Island settlement. Tar River. White negroes.

Pitch Pines and Tar Burners: A 1792 Account

I recently found an historical account that I think might be the best description of tar making in North Carolina that I have ever read. An English merchant named Holles Bull Way wrote it in his travel diary when he visited coastal North Carolina in 1792. He did not publish those excerpts from his diary until 1809, though, when the article that I found appeared in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts, Great Britain's first monthly scientific journal.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. in Rocky Mount

Friday night, February 23. I am writing these words at the old Booker T. Washington High School in Rocky Mount, N.C. A very special event is happening here tonight. More than half a century ago, on November 27, 1962, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a historic speech in this school’s gymnasium, only a few feet from where I am sitting now.

A Story from the Jewish Museum in New York City

When my wife and I visited New York City a few weeks ago, we stayed at a hotel next to the Jewish Museum. I had never been to the museum, and on the morning before my wife gave a lecture at Mt. Sinai Hospital (the reason for our trip), we visited the museum. The Jewish Museum's collections cover 4,000 years of history and include 30,000 objects of art, Judaica and antiquities from around the world. But I, of course, Iooked through the museum’s collections for anything related to the history of the North Carolina coast.

Something Musical in Kinston

One of the things I like best about the Kinston Music Park is the way it doesn’t just honor the great jazz, blues, gospel, bebop, big band, rhythm and blues and hip hop artists that came out of Eastern N.C.—the park also honors the band teachers, choir directors and music educators who made that rich history of African American music possible.

Life on the New River: Ollie Marine’s General Store Ledger & Day Book, 1927-1941

My friend Melba McKeever’s daughter Mary Beth ran home to get two of her family treasures after I gave a lecture that she attended in Sneads Ferry, N.C. recently. They turned out to be account books that her grandfather, Ollie Marine, kept at his general store in the village of Marines in Onslow County, N.C., from 1927 to 1941.

Oysters at the Whitney Library

As impressive as I found Yale’s Beinecke Library, which is a modern, architectural wonder (more on that visit later), I found myself far more excited by the Whitney Library at the New Haven Museum.  Maybe I just succumbed to nostalgia. Founded in 1862 and located next to Yale, the Whitney has spectacular collections on New Haven’s history but has made few concessions to modernity.  

At the Codfish Ball– Memories of Swansboro

Not long ago, I explored a wonderful collection of oral history interviews in Swansboro, N.C. In 2009 a group of a dozen volunteers from the Swansboro Historical Association underwent a special training in oral history research. Once completed, they interviewed some of the coastal town’s oldest residents and recorded their stories about Swansboro’s history in the early to mid-20th century.

The Slave Conspiracy of 1821

I can’t tell from Benjamin Labaree’s journal with total confidence, but the incident of the runaway slave and the miller in Trenton that I discussed in my last post may have been part of the white panic that spread across the North Carolina coast in the summer of 1821. Historian Guion Griffis Johnson discussed the panic in her classic book, Ante-bellum North Carolina: A Social History. 

Benjamin Labaree’s Journal– A Yankee Teacher in Trenton, N.C., 1821-22

When he was 19 years old, in 1821, a young teacher named Benjamin Labaree left a small town in New Jersey, made his way to New York City and took passage on a ship bound for Washington, N.C. His first impression of the North Carolina coast could have been better. “I should not like to teach in that town,” he later wrote, “everything looked so untidy and neglected. Dead animals were to be seen in the travelled streets.”

All the Fair Faced Pretty Boys

A memory. I am remembering a day at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, Mass. The Society holds one of the great collections of early American manuscripts and artifacts, everything from John Quincy Adams’ diary to Paul Revere’s pistol. I was there to look at less famous relics, but ones just as exciting to me: letters and diaries written by Union soldiers that served in New Bern, N.C. during the American Civil War.

Shark! Shark!

A book. While my daughter Vera and I were doing research on Cape Lookout, N.C. in the 1910s and '20s, we found a little known memoir by a big game fisherman who hunted sharks on the North Carolina coast. The shark hunter was named William E. Young, and his book, published in 1934, is called Shark! Shark! Shark! The Thirty-Year Odyssey of a Pioneer Shark Hunter.

The Underground Archives- A Note from Warsaw, Poland

Tonight I am a long way from home. My son and I are in Warsaw, Poland, visiting my grandfather’s homeland, and while it has been a trip of many joys I don’t have words for what we saw today or what I feel now. In the wind and snow and rain, we explored the former site of the Warsaw Ghetto. During the Second World War, the Nazis confined 450,000 Jews in one small part of the city.

Colington Island: An Outer Banks Fishing Village in the 1930s

In the late winter or early spring of 1938, a photographer named Charles Farrell visited Colington, an old fishing village on North Carolina's Outer Banks. Today Colington is surrounded by condominiums and resorts, but at that time Farrell discovered only a quiet, out-of-the-way settlement with perhaps 200 or 300 residents divided between two small islands, Little Colington and Big Colington.