Painting with light: Former Duplin County teacher captured life one frame at a time

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The photos are faded now, their images grown ghostlike and wan beneath years of haphazard care and the slow chemical breakdown of materials that once fixed them in time and space.
Yet, despite their obvious wear, a sense of place lingers in the images, amongst their captured light and shadow, as palpable as the smell of hickory-scented chimney smoke or the feel of rough-hewn lumber on a country church.
The photos serve as a visual last will and testament for Edgar James Wells, Jr., a Rose Hill-born WWII Army medic who returned home to teach English at both B.F. Grady and East Duplin high schools. During his teaching years, Wells was recognized with high school yearbook dedications, teacher-of-the-year nominations and other honors.
But Wells’s influence on the Duplin County community went far beyond his career in the classroom. A talented pianist, he played at numerous local weddings, funerals and church services.
And after retiring from teaching, he became something of a gentleman gypsy, a man who appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
James Boney, a Teachey native who grew up with Wells, can still remember his friend knocking on his door at night, stories on his tongue and a camera in his hand.
“It was absolutely nothing, 11 or 12:00 at night to meet him on the road going or coming,” Boney remembers. “Or he would show up at our door at 9:30 or 10:00 at night and just come in and sit down and visit until whenever. But before you started talking about anything, he’d have to take your picture.”
After Wells passed away on July 28, 2015, Boney, who served as the administrator of his estate, got a first hand look at the thousands of photos Wells had taken and collected over the years.
“There were six of us in his will and what we did was we spent, I don’t know, like four weeks, three days a week, of nothing but going through his pictures. There’s a room at his home in Teachey and the whole wall was stacked up with packs of pictures,” says Boney.
The packs were distributed among Boney and the others named in the will according to the contents of the photos. Whoever could identify a family member or old home place took home a packet.
Boney guesses many of the photos date back to the 1960s.
“We didn’t find any old, old pictures,” he says. “Edgar moved like five or six times and I’m sure he took pictures back in his younger days as much as he did in his later days. But we didn’t find any from the ’30s or ’40s; that’s what I would have wanted to have found.”
Though the pictures that Boney and his wife, Norita, brought home represent only a handful of Wells’s photographic output, they show a man nearly obsessed with capturing the details of daily life: church dinners; artfully decayed buildings; blonde-haired children laughing on a newly-cut summer lawn;  a gas station attendant casually leaning on a gas pump.

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And according to Boney, hundreds and hundreds of flower photos.
“Every time he was at our house he had to go in the backyard and snap away at the flowers,” he remembers.
There’s nothing polished about the photos Boney brought home. But their power will be familiar to anyone who’s ever discovered a  box of yellowed snapshots in a thrift store or family attic. It’s the power of memory, of faces and landscapes that linger on the edge of dreams, of a time when the world seemed lit with a different, gentler sun.
They aren’t the work of a photographer schooled in composition or overly concerned with the fine details of exposure. No, it’s clear that Edgar Wells picked up his camera, aimed it and fired the shutter for the  simplest, and most profound, reason imaginable — for the pure pleasure of the thing.
“He mostly used the little throwaway cameras in his later days,” Boney remembers. “We found some older 35mm cameras also and a Polaroid, probably a dozen cameras or so in his belongings. And tube after tube of film cartridges; he didn’t throw anything away.”
In his final years, Wells moved back and forth between the Murray House in Kenansville and the Country Squire Inn in Warsaw. But he also kept a house in Teachey to store his belongings, including the photos.
“There were several houses, nice houses, that he just stored stuff in,” explains Boney. “He went in and they were… his friends.”
According to Boney, Wells took great pains to have his photos cropped and printed to the standards of his own eccentric eye.
“He would get the pictures printed and he would outline them with Post-it Notes, and he would highlight the portion that he wanted to see better and he would take those back and have them re-printed to that portion. He might have 10 made, and once he looked at them and got them like he wanted them, that was pretty much it, they went over in his box.”
Though the Boneys were able to identify many of the people and places captured in the photos  they brought home, some remain a mystery.
“This one was taken in the Teachey Presbyterian churchyard in the 1930s,” Boney says, holding up a faded black and white image of children crouched in a circle. “We don’t know who anyone is in there.”

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Another mystery photo shows a group of somberly dressed men flanked by horse-drawn carriages outside what appears to be a country store.
“Edgar’s mother was from Monroe, and this may be from there,” Boney surmises. “It may just be something he saw that he liked and had a picture made of a picture. We just don’t know.”

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Wells’s photos have inspired Boney’s own creative pursuits. Though many of the houses seen in his friend’s photos no longer exist, Boney has made miniature replicas of a handful that he remembers from childhood.
“That’s my little hobby. This was my dad’s grocery store back in the ’50s and it was right where the Teachey Post Office is today,” he says, pointing to a model perched in the shed behind his home. “I’m trying to build the houses that are no longer here.”
Even in the final days of his life, Wells kept a camera at his side, the Boneys remember.
“When he was in the nursing home and people came in he wanted a picture. He got to the point where he couldn’t press the button on the camera,” says Norita.
“Then I would have to go get them developed for him,” her husband laughs..
Until the very end, Wells remained involved with the lives of his former students, says Norita.
“He would go to their homes and meet their parents. He’d come and talk about somebody he knew and then he’d talk about their grandma or their aunts and uncles, their whole family. His memory was sharp.”
And along with his photos, Wells left James and Norita one final, appropriately unique gift — a new addition to the backyard  flowers he once loved to preserve on film.
“When he went in the nursing home I had to help move his stuff out of the Country Squire,” recalls James.
“There were two bags of daffodil bulbs that he had bought that were still in a shopping bag. And here they are. So that’s Edgar’s daffodil corner.”

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Voice of experience

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Austin Obasohan’s voice still carries the rich, singing accent of the small Nigerian village where he grew up, an accent that can, at times, deceive American ears. But when the Superintendent of Duplin County Schools speaks about education, there’s no mistaking his very clear determination to make a difference in the lives of children, a determination born of both struggle and faith.
“The best way to open up the minds of our children is education. If you have knowledge, you can impact the world, you can have conversations that will bring people together,” says Obasohan, relaxing in his office on an unusually warm winter’s day last week.
Born in 1959 in southern Nigeria in the village of Nifor, a farm community not unlike Duplin County, Obasohan’s family struggled to make ends meet. As the oldest son of seven children, much of the burden fell on his shoulders.
“It was a very, very poor community,” he remembers. “I had a lot on me. Not everybody could go to school in my village; it’s not like here where we have free education, you have to pay some fees, and we struggled with that.”
At age nine Obasohan’s parents sent him to work for his father’s uncle, a man of means who offered to pay  their son’s school tuition in exchange for his labor.
“I was like a houseboy or something. The deal was I serve them for four years and then they pay my tuition for four years,” he says.
Though he’s loath to label it as such, Obasohan’s years of indentured servitude sound little different from outright slavery.
“I never got to really eat the food that I cooked, I barely had what was left. So one day I start frying these eggs for them, and it smelled good in the kitchen,” he recalls. “Because of fear and my respect for authority, I knew I better not take anything to eat, even though nobody’s watching me while I’m cooking.
“So one day I got mad and I fried an egg for me and I ate it.  Man, they came and they saw me and they whipped my tail.”
The arrangement with his uncle ultimately ended in acrimony.
“Man, it still gets to me, even today, to think about it,” Obasohan says. “When it was time for me to go to high school he disappointed us and told us he doesn’t have any money, that the money he planned to spend on me he was going to spend expanding his wife’s business.”
After returning to Nifor, the teenager was forced to stay back a grade to give his parents time to raise money for his sister’s education. And like one of the tall tales told by grandparents all over the world, Obasohan actually did walk four miles, one way, to school each day, rain or shine.
“I walked those miles everyday because education was so important and I didn’t want to let my father down, and I knew the only way I could handle the load behind me was to get my education,” he says emphatically. “I know the only way I can get out of there and restore a sense of pride to my family was make that sacrifice.”
For years, Obasohan walked those miles in his bare feet — he wouldn’t receive a pair of tennis shoes until the 12th grade.
“We would walk and do our homework on each others backs,” he says, mimicking the maneuver. “At night there was no electricity, so we had to be creative.”
Like a lot of children small of stature and limited in resources, Obasohan also suffered at the hands of bullies.
“When I was little I was so short, so small. I thought I was going to be 5’2” max. I got whipped so bad in school by these big guys, they beat me up good. I had no economic class, I had no voice.”
Obasohan used the abuse as motivation to defeat his tormentors the only way he knew how — academically.
“So after I got beat a lot I said ‘Man, what am I going to do.’ So I turned that anger into getting more serious at academics. Now those guys wanted me to help them with their schoolwork, so they became my bodyguards.”
That drive would eventually propel the young man from his home country in search of opportunity. He would land first in the United Kingdom, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from Sussex College of Technology. Touching down in the U.S. in 1981, he received his doctorate from Appalachian State University, and his specialist and master’s degrees from Virginia State University.

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Obasohan would go on to work as a teacher and assistant principal in New York,  Virginia and North Carolina.
“That first year of teaching in 1981 (at the New York Career Institute) I said ‘Man, this is it.’ And I’ve been married to it ever since,” he says.
Coming from a deeply religious family, Obasohan said he drew comfort from his faith during those early days in the States.
My mother always told me ‘If you just find the Christians, the people who have the same faith as you, then adjusting to the culture will not be difficult. It’s the same way all over world, whatever faith you chose, it’s the same way of worshiping the same way of doing things.”
In 2008 Obasohan took over the superintendent’s job at Selma City Schools in Alabama. Two years later, he was hired by the Duplin County Board of Education to head up the county’s school system.
Obasohan said his goal was always to serve as an administrator, a role he knew would allow him to implement policies benefiting students and educators alike.
”I was seeing the professional practices that were occurring, the policy implementation that was occurring in the schools where I was working, and I knew I wanted to treat these kids better than that,” he explains.
As the father of three children with his wife, Uyiosa (daughter Modesty, and sons Justice and Trust) Obasohan has seen the sacrifices he made during his own childhood pay off in front of his eyes.
“I tell them the stories of what I went through. They don’t have to walk to school, and I’m just so happy we were able to give them a better life,” he says.
The young boy who once bore the brunt of cruel classmates has grown into a passionate defender of bullying victims.
“People don’t understand what bullying does,” he states. “Bullying is a way of oppressing others, taking other people’s rights away, and it’s just wrong. It really destroyed me when I was growing up.”
Now in his seventh year at Duplin County Schools, Obasohan said he remains as committed as ever to providing the best educational opportunities for each and every student.
“Myself, and my community had no resources at all,” he says of his early life in Nigeria. “I want every child to know that circumstances do not define your destiny. It is how you respond to your circumstances. Every challenge I went through I saw as an assignment to make a difference.
Obasohan said he still lives by the words of his 90-year-old mother, who he talks to by phone every day.
“My mother always told me: ‘It’s better to say this is the spot where a man was killed for standing for what is right, than to say this is the last spot where we saw the man before he ran away.’”
“You can’t choose an assignment you’re not willing to die for; education is what I’m willing to die for.”

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Crazy Mary’s divine playground

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Mary Paulsen says she heard the voice of God for the first time in 1996. The message was clear: construct a village in her front yard for the 6,000 dolls she had accumulated since childhood, when she would rescue discarded toys from trash bins around her Sunset Beach neighborhood.

Two years later, Paulsen received another decree from on high, this one with instructions to take brush and paint to canvases of window glass, illustrating her visions of colorful creatures both holy and psychedelically secular. The third and final mandate came five years ago—collect bottles, any kind of bottles, and use them as glass siding for a new gallery.

Though she had no experience as either an artist or a carpenter, Paulsen wasn’t particularly troubled by the new direction her life had taken. “The Lord gave me visions in my head; he gave me the knowledge of how to do all these things,” she explains.

Through a process that’s as hard to define as the place itself, Paulsen has managed to combine her spiritual directives into a sprawling fantasia equal parts childhood wonderland and Gothic nightmare — Mary’s Gone Wild Folk Art Garden and Doll Village.

Located a few miles off U.S. 17 in the small Brunswick County community of Supply, the village unwinds like a mashup of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse,” “Sanford and Son,” and “The X-Files.” It also recalls Paradise Garden, the rambling sculpture museum created by another well known — and divinely inspired—Southern folk artist, the late Rev. Howard Finster of Georgia.

Other than a welcome sign by the highway, the only greeting offered visitors to the village is written on a piece of cardboard taped to a dusty curio cabinet:

“Remember if

you steal

from here you have just

stole from

the Lord not me

and He will be your judge & jury

amen”

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“I don’t know whether to be impressed or freaked out.”

So says Brian Weber, a Jacksonville native on vacation with his family, as he navigates a series of lopsided treehouses that tower over the village’s entrance. The reaction is understandable — Mary Paulsen’s singular vision made reality is, undeniably, both impressive and freaky.

The main village consists of large-scale dollhouses, each roughly the size of a small shed, which have been constructed to represent specific themes. Bible verses, cryptic quotes, and bits of Paulsen’s singular advice decorate many of the walls. Dolls in various states of ruin and undress peer out from behind boxes or beneath weeds. Several staircases lead nowhere or simply terminate in mid-air. And throughout, nearly every available space is overflowing with the decaying odds and ends of daily life: rotary telephones, novels, coffee mugs, rooster figurines — they’ve all found a home in Paulsen’s other worldly art project.

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Each dollhouse leaves its own, peculiar impression. In the school building, wall length paintings of cartoon characters Tweety Bird and Sylvester guard over an assortment of dusty children’s toys, sports trophies, and comic books. A sign at the school’s entrance declares, “Jesus Christ is Lord over this school and over all this village.”

One of the most striking buildings is the chapel, a quaint mauve and ochre hut with an interior that is either charming or unsettling, depending on one’s attitude towards inanimate toys shaped like blank-eyed children. On each side of the chapel’s small alter a congregation of ragged dolls, some dressed in their Sunday finery, others sporting Bubble Yum T-shirts and gypsy scarves, sit expectantly in miniature pews. Watching over it all, a weathered watercolor of Jesus rests atop a grime covered organ, his eyes turned toward windows painted with images of dancing angels.

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Navigating Paulsen’s surreal playground, visitors will find little in the way of guideposts or explanations. Some may be left with the inescapable feeling that there is meaning, dancing just at the edge of consciousness, hidden in the juxtapositions of the commonplace and the bizarre, the religious and the ribald.

It would take days, weeks maybe, just to see, much less make sense of it all.

 

Out back behind the dollhouses in the Folk Art Garden, Mary Paulsen is bent over a new project, trawl in hand. Slapping mortar around the base of one green jar after another, she carefully places them around a metal hoop stretched over a small garden of flowers.

Dressed in a light blue top and matching slacks, her copper hair ruffling in the slight breeze, the 66-year-old is relaxed and in rare humor.

“Sometimes I look this good and sometimes I look even worse,” she jokes, breaking into an infectious cackle. “Most people my age don’t do as much as I’m used to doing. The Lord has kept me in good health. I still climb ladders and hammer nails.”

Paulsen’s latest project is situated between several buildings, composed mostly of bottles and painted windows, that are startlingly different than those in the dollhouse village. Stepping into those structures is not unlike walking into a church, the rooms aglow with light filtered through their multi-hued glass walls.

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Across the street, a haughty, scarlet haired mannequin in a yellow polka dot bikini beckons the curious towards Paulsen’s art gallery, which contains hundreds of her larger than life, day glow window paintings of frolicking mermaids, amorous fish, waltzing turtles and other improbable wildlife.

Paulsen remembers her family was initially less than enthused with her artistic calling.  “They thought I’d gone off the deep end. They kept telling me I should do something useful. But they stopped talking when I did my first painting and had it sold  for $80 before 10:00 the next morning.”

Paulsen says visitors come from across the U.S. and beyond to take home one of her original works. “People say it wouldn’t be a vacation without if they didn’t stop here. Some of them have started what they call ‘Mary’s Rooms’ with my art that they’ve collected.”

Paulsen donates a portion of the proceeds from her art sales to Feed the Children, a nonprofit hunger relief organization.

Though her life has seen its share of heartache — both her father and first husband were killed in accidents at sea — the woman some have labeled “Crazy Mary” seems at peace with the turn towards the alternative her life has taken. Her newfound carpentry skills even helped bolster her romantic life — the artist and her current husband, Paul, were married in the chapel dollhouse.

“I’ve done a few wedding’s there,” notes Paulsen, who also happens to be an ordained minister.

And in her sixth decade,  the young girl who once rescued unwanted dolls is still recycling her neighbor’s discarded goods. According to Paulsen, most of the bottles and windows she uses throughout the Folk Art Garden and Doll Village are donated.

“It’s like the things I need just materialize when I start a project,” she remarks, sweeping her hand across an adjacent lot filled with stacks of glass materials she’s yet to find a use for.

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According to Paulsen, the Smithsonian has already laid claim to her schoolhouse. Beyond that, she said she’s given little thought to what will become of her life’s work after she’s gone.

“I hope my grandyoungins might want to take it over and carry on, but you never can tell about that,” she says.

In the end, it matters little whether Paulsen is divinely inspired or touched with madness: her mission to create a space outside the confines of the “normal” world is a holy one, either way.

“There’s nothing here that’s gonna’ hurt anyone; it’s here for everyone to walk around and look at,” she explains. “It’s here to show that there are still good things in this Earth. We already have enough bad.”

 

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New Bern’s silent sanctuary

Growing up in New Bern during the late 1970s and early ’80s, I always thought of Cedar Grove Cemetery as the center of my riverfront hometown. For reasons having little to do with geography, the roughly two and half acre plot of land seemed to represent an unofficial demarcation point between New Bern’s fascinatingly derelict historic district and the newer city of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, mall arcades, and auto dealerships.

Behind its walls embedded with shells, mollusks, and other river invertebrates was a world older even than the city’s towering Masonic Temple and Harvey Mansion (though not quite as old as Tryon Palace). The Spanish moss draped cedar trees that gave the cemetery its name and the archaically alien mausoleums stood in even starker contrast to a modern society that seemed increasingly infatuated with surface gleam, entertainment and “that new car smell.”grave12

If I had known even a portion of Ceder Grove’s history back then, I would have had even more reason to be enchanted with the burying ground. Established in 1800, the cemetery was owned by Christ Episcopal Church until 1853, when it was transferred to the City of New Bern. According to local historians, it’s almost certain that the cemetery was established in response to the yellow fever epidemics of 1798-99. During the epidemic “so many persons succumbed that at night trenches were dug in the Christ Episcopal church yard in a line near the adjoining property to the northwest… and the bodies were buried there indiscriminately,” reads one contemporaneous account.

After 1802 the cemetery became the major New Bern burial ground. The grave markers and cemetery records read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th and 20th century North Carolina’s most influential citizens: William Gaston, congressman, writer, state supreme court justice, and author of the North Carolina state song; William Williams, a portrait artist who painted from life the only Masonic portrait of George Washington; Moses Griffin, who established a free school and served the state throughout his life; John Stanly, lawyer, politician and public servant; and Mary Bayard Clarke, 19th century New Bern poet and writer.

With a good map a visitor might even locate the grave of perhaps New Bern’s most famous son, Caleb Bradham, who concocted his Pepsi-Cola formula in a local drugstore in 1893.

Cedar Grove Cemetery also bears witness to the region’s brief but lethal engagement in the Civil War. At the cemetery’s mid-point a bronze Confederate soldier rises 18 feet above its granite column, parade rifle at rest, a canon ball propped by his right foot and a sword slung at his side. The monument sits above a vault where approximately 67 Confederate soldiers are interred. A Latin inscription at the statue’s feet reads, “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori,” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

But for all its famous dead and memorials to history’s murderous advance, Cedar Grove Cemetery may be more well known among tourists for its looming black entrance arch than its celebrity occupants. Built from the same “shell stone” as the cemetery’s wall, legend has it that if the arch “weeps” or “bleeds” its sticky, rust colored ooze on a pallbearer passing beneath, the unlucky individual will soon be the guest of honor at his or her own funeral procession.

Inscribed over the arch gates is a hymn composed by Francis Lister Hawks, grandson of Tryon Palace architect John Hawks:

“Still hallowed be this spot where lies

Each dear loved one in earth’s embrace

Our God their treasured dust doth prize

Man should protect their resting place.”

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In 1972, Cedar Grove Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, three and a half decades after I first toured its grounds as a young boy, the cemetery is part of a downtown that has seen massive revitalization, as the city long ago embraced its heritage and earmarked funds to preserve its historical structures.

For me, the cemetery now feels more than ever like a sanctuary, from the renovated old homes and parks that draw the tourists and from the big box stores that have invaded New Bern’s business district. An island, for the living and the dead, carved from an older and stranger world. I drive past its walls sometimes just to remind myself that it’s still there, and that I am too.

 

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Green Springs water park: The last of the old-time swimming holes

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George Wetherington has some stories to tell. Some are about God, some are about war, and some are about endless struggles against authority. Many are wild and impossible to confirm. But each one, eventually, leads back to one place — Green Springs water park.

The first story Wetherington needs you to hear, the one that explains so much of what came after, is about broken young men left behind on a battlefield in Korea, and one who wasn’t.

“When I was drafted they sent me to Fort Meade, Maryland. My granddaddy died in March of ’52, so I went back home to the funeral and then went right straight back, and why I was home the feeling got on me so strong that I was being sent to die there in Korea; I was never coming back. And I went to all the little places I played as a kid, I thought I would never see it no more.”

When he returned from the war, Wetherington said the feeling of dislocation returned, only more intensely.

“When I got home just about dark a guy picked me up at the bus station and took me home. When I left there the feeling come back, that I wasn’t supposed to be back, and I was all to pieces and I asked the Lord what was I supposed to be doing and ..it took me years to get over that.

“There was many a person got killed over in Korea. I had a feeling I was with all these guys that got killed… and yet I was home, and they weren’t home. And I got my face right in the dirt, and people laughing and celebrating and thanking the Lord for being home; it was the other way with me. I knew I won’t supposed to be home and it was the first time I ever heard the Lord talk to me in my life and he said ‘George, if you get yourself right, I’ll use you.’”

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Seated at a weatherbeaten picnic table at his home in James City, Wetherington gazes out from his backyard at the wooden oddity of Green Springs water park that rises above the Neuse River some 50-yards away, a faded Confederate flag blowing slowly in the late summer breeze from the four-story tower that dominates the surrounding structure. A few teenagers in bathing suits pass by and say hello on their way down to the catwalk-like series of piers, steps and platforms.

At 86, Wetherington appears much like the water park itself, battered but still functioning. Adjusting his red “Make America Great Again” cap, he explains how after returning from the Korean War he moved from his boyhood home some 20 miles away to his current multi-acre spread on the waterfront of James City, an unincorporated community a few miles east of New Bern. He was lost, mentally and spiritually, searching for anything that might show him “who I really was, whether I had a purpose in this world,” he recalls

According to Wetherington, after several aborted attempts he began work on Green Springs water park in earnest in 1975 with the help of a local Boy Scout troop.

“There was a Scout mom who asked me to bring the troop down here and clean the area as a Good Turn project. Before that I had a pier for swimming that washed up in 1971. There was nothing out there but an old pole and it’s still sitting out over yonder. There used to be an old lover’s lane down there and we cleaned it up. When the pier washed up I bought this lot here. I was leasing the first lot and I decided I’d move the pier over here on this one.

“When we first started we put anchors in the ground, we put cables to the pier trying to hold it, we done a little bit of everything. The cables would rust out, anchors would rust out and the poles would come up. We just sunk more poles and just kept adding to it.”

After four decades of additions, repairs and re-thinkings the Green Springs of today is a sprawling anomaly that would look more at home in the swamps of Louisiana than just around the corner from some of the most prized waterfront property in Craven County, North Carolina. In addition to four towers connected with levels of walkways, the park also includes ramps, rope swings, zip lines and designated areas for diving. Looking at it head on from the pier that connects to Wetherington’s backyard can be disorienting: nothing is exactly level or square; walkways warp underneath your feet and don’t always lead where you might expect. Like a real world construction by a rustic M.S. Escher, however, Green Springs has its own internal logic.

According to Wetherington, getting approval for the project took an effort almost as fraught with setbacks as its construction. One of his favorite stories, maybe his very favorite, is how he beat the local and state authorities who tried to thwart his dream.

“We had a pretty hard time getting a permit for it because about three people were bucking us that had a lot of pull on it; it took a long time,” he recalls. “I was facing an automatic $10,000 fine when I built it: they told me I won’t gonna build it and I told them I was gonna build it, that we had a right to have it and everything they was doing was illegal, but it didn’t make no difference. I ended up taking it to Raleigh, and the U.S. Attorney told me ‘Right or wrong has nothing to do with it, it’s how much money you got.’”

“They was one that was trying to stop me, an old sheriff, and he died in ’74.  Even a congressman got involved and tried to have the permit taken away after we got it. That was a long time ago. But there’s no way I could have held on without the Lord’s help, there’s no way I could’ve done it. The things I bucked…”

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If God was indeed fully behind the Green Springs project, he often had a strange way of showing it. Nature’s catastrophic outbursts, human malice, and sheer bad luck have almost done the park in on a number of occasions.

In 2011, two-thirds of the structure was submerged thanks to Hurricane Irene. According to Wetherington, storms and floods routinely tear bits and pieces from the towers and piers, which require almost constant repair.

“About three years ago somebody set it afire out there. I don’t know whether it was an accident but I believe it was on purpose,” he notes dryly.

And despite the numerous signs warning of shallow water and the absence of lifeguards, there have been at least two deaths and a handful of serious injuries since the park opened. In the summer of 2015 a 21-year-old man drowned, as did a teenager in 2010. The following year a 10-year-old girl fell from the third level of the swim deck to the second level and broke her femur. In 2014 a teenager got airlifted out after doing an alley oop into the river.

“Somebody sued me in ’88,” says Wetherington. “A boy had been out here early and he was showing off and did a belly flop up off the fourth floor. The lawyer got ahold of it and the county attorney told me ‘George, you’ve got a big nice piece of property and everybody wants it.’ But the boy wasn’t hurt; we backed ’em off.”

The accidents have led some nearby residents to call for the park’s closure, a possibility Wetherington seems wholly unable, or unwilling, to countenance.

“A lot of them want to say it’s dangerous, and the kids are lookin’ to get hurt and this and the other, but the people that got hurt, most of them was in shallow water, they would jump off the shallow stuff into water, it’s not from the high stuff.”

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As the late afternoon shadows deepen and the swirl of cicada song grows louder in his backyard, Wetherington greets 16-year-old Dennis Suggs, who’s been coming to the park with various uncles, siblings and friends since he was 10. “Yeah, I’ve been to a buncha other water parks, like the one in Kinston and there’s one in Morehead,” says Suggs, “but I’ll always come back to Green Springs. You don’t run across stuff like this anymore.”

It’s a sentiment heard often from the regulars, out-of- towners and first-timers at Green Springs on any given summer day. It’s the kind of enthusiasm that has led the park to be featured in numerous YouTube videos and on the popular website of the strange and unique, Atlas Obscura. But according to Wetherington, without the help of volunteers, the park may not be around for anyone to enjoy much longer.

“It’s in bad shape, no doubt about it. The pier is all ragtag, it’s all to pieces, but I can’t fix it. I’m slowing down quite a bit,” he admits. “I would like to try and repair it but it’s very discouraging, you get out there and you get a whole bunch of kids, ‘Oh. I’ll help you with this, I’ll help you with this’ and all that kinda stuff, and the very time you go with a hammer and nail they’re gone, see. And really, a lot of people are that way.”

Although he stopped charging admission years ago, Wetherington said fewer and fewer thrill seekers come to Green Springs each year.

“I bet there’s been close to a million people here since I been here; today there’s not very many here, there’s just a few,” he says, scanning the pier. “But back in the ’70s and all there was 300 to 400 a day, everyday. In the ’80s, 200 to 300 a day, all summer long. We used to have drink boxes and stuff, but once McDonalds come out there I done away with them and let them walk out there to McDonalds. I couldn’t make no money on them no way.”

Despite, or maybe because of, the numerous setbacks, Wetherington seems determined to continue until he’s simply no longer able to rise each morning to greet Green Springs’ visitors.

“I felt the Lord has let me live for a reason and I look at all these little kids and all, five generations now I’ve seen here. A lot of them come down here and say ‘Do you know so and so? That was my grandmomma or granddaddy.’ There was somebody here the other day who said they were the third generation been coming here.

“People have wanted to put condominiums and stuff down here, but then where would the kids go? They walk in just like it’s home, a lot of them come from Jacksonville, they used to come from Newport, Greenville, all along, just to see what it is, just to jump off something. I didn’t know what in the world they come for, because it ain’t nothing purty, but that’s the reason they like it. It’s the old-timey thing, ya’ know, it’s just fun. I nicknamed it ‘the last of the old-time swimming holes.’”

Wetherington maintains his determination to see Green Springs continue can be traced back to a young man who returned from the war that claimed so many of his friends, and even today, isn’t quite sure why?

“I thought the Lord let me come back from Korea and those over there didn’t come back, they gave everything they had, and I had just as much right to give my life for something as they did over yonder. I wanted to make a place for kids to go swimming when they’re at grandma’s and all, or just a little homecoming and whatever, just the little simple things that kids ain’t got no more.”

And that, it seems, is the final story George Wetherington has to tell, the one he’s still living.

“All these kids down here, they don’t care nothing about tomorrow, it’s all today. But one day they’re going to grow up, some of them will, and some of them will be in a fox hole and a shell will come with their name on it, some of them will jump out of an airplane and the parachute ain’t gonna open. And when that happens their mind’s going back to the most fun they ever had in all their life, and that’s when I want them to remember me and Green Springs.”

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