KENANSVILLE — When Ann Craft speaks about the past, her pale blue eyes wander over the paintings laid side-by-side on her couch like triptychs formed from the bright, clear days of her youth, when a cool glass of sweet tea could be had for a nickel and the sounds of rusty bike wheels and children’s laughter echoed through the courthouse square.
For Craft, the paintings are something more than simple brush strokes and pigment. They represent a crucial link to the family she’s nurtured and valued beyond all the awards and artwork she’s acquired over her eight decades in Duplin County.
That family reaches back to the kin of her paternal grandparents, Winiford Kornegay and Henry Dale, Duplin County natives who produced 12 children, among them her father, George Robert Dail. After surviving the battlefields of World War I, Dale returned to his hometown of Kenansville. Within a matter of weeks, he met Margaret Ormond, a teacher at James Sprunt Institute, the forerunner of James Sprunt Community College. Within a matter of months, they were married.
Though Craft describes the town of Kenansville as little more than a country village at the time, her parents found a way to prosper, thanks to their resourcefulness and her father’s keen business sense. After attending pharmacy school, he opened Kenansville Drug Store and then branched out into the grocery business.
Margaret and George’s marriage would produce two children, Ann and her sister, Margaretta.
“I was born across the street from Kenansville Baptist Church in a one-room house,” remembered Craft, relaxing in her home on South Main Street in Kenansville. “They rented that for about $25 a month.”
Craft recalled that, following the death of her maternal grandmother, her mother inherited a significant sum of money, allowing the family to buy the home where Craft currently lives, the historic Isaac Kelly House, which was built in 1841. Craft said her parents paid a total of $3,000 for the home, which included a lot that stretched to the site of the present-day Cowan Museum.
Craft remembered that the home fell far below modern standards of comfort.
“It was one cold buzzard. You had to put enough blankets on you to just about kill you or else heat up a brick to put at the foot of the bed to warm it up.”
Taking a page from her father’s book, Craft decided to extend her education, enrolling in East Carolina Teachers College, later to be renamed East Carolina University, where she played on the school’s varsity female basketball team.
While attending ECTC, she would also meet William “Pot” Craft, a fellow basketball enthusiast whose nickname was bestowed in honor of his “potshot” shooting skills. Following her graduation in 1947, they married, returning to Kenansville in 1950.
While William worked to get his law practice off the ground, Craft said she chose to become a teacher, working for 20 years in Beulaville, 20 more in Kenansville, and one year in Louisburg while her husband attended law school.
“We wanted to eat,” remembered Craft, who said she was paid $120 a month for her teaching services.
Craft said her husband served as attorney to the town of Kenansville for 27 years and was a member of the James Sprunt Board of Trustees for over three decades.
Craft’s sister, Margaretta, would also find a husband, Donald Snider, a skilled commercial artist who produced illustrations for medical books and other publications. While visiting Kenansville, Snider made sketches of local landmarks, sketches that he would eventually turn into a series of paintings.
Craft said one of Snider’s paintings has been with her since the 1940s, the others coming into her posession more recently, with the death of her sister.
While one of the paintings depicts a familiar view of the Duplin County Courthouse, the other two feature scenes that only those with roots deep in the county’s fertile soil would recognize: the original Farrior Home, which is now the site of the Cowan Museum; and the Kenansville Depot, a long-vanished landmark that once sat behind Craft’s home in the approximate location of the Food Lion grocery store.
“We played around back there a lot of times running around that building and seeing how many splinters we could get in our feet,” remembered Craft.
Cows, pigs, and chickens could be seen roaming the field around the Farrior House, recalled Craft. “You wouldn’t believe it now, but it was a common thing back then.”
Craft said her fondest memory stirred by the paintings is of skating around the courthouse’s paved parking lot, an obsession that she shared with other children of the town.
“It was a big thing at that time just to have a paved surface; that was an unusual thing in this town,” she explained.
Discussing the paintings, Craft recalled some of her early childhood triumphs. “I won a pig running contest one time with the 4-H; I was 14 years-old and I really enjoyed that,” she laughed.
Though money was often scarce, Craft said worries were equally in short supply. “You cold go out and play all day; you weren’t concerned about being kidnapped or any of that. You just better be there when it was time to eat. We had such a good time.”
Craft can recall, evening after summer evening, following her friends into one of the nearby cow fields to bat around a ball of rubber and tightly wound string. “The boys and the girls played together,” remembered Craft. “I’m still friends with some of them today.”
Having a father in the grocery business also had its perks. “I got my nickel allowance as well as being able to get goodies from the store, so I did pretty good for myself.”
Craft said her experiences and memories so vividly embodied in the paintings have made her a “great lover of my community.” To prove that statement, Craft has a long list of awards and citations from her years of service to her hometown.
As a member of the Kenansville Beautification Committee, she has worked to get sidewalks put in front of school and organized local parades. She was chairman of the Duplin County Committee for America’s 400th Anniversary in 1982 and is currently a member of the Liberty Hall Restoration Committee. Additionally, Craft worked with the local Meals on Wheels program and received a Volunteer of the Year award from former N.C. Governor Jim Hunt in 1984.
Craft said she was also instrumental in getting plaques placed on the historic homes throughout the community.
Craft said she still remains active in the community, teaching Sunday school classes when she has the time and volunteering at E.E. Smith Middle School during their End of Grade testing.
Running her hand over one of the new, wooden frames she recently fitted them with, Craft said she has yet to decide what to do with the paintings. Though she loaned out the Farrior Home work to the Cowan Museum for a time, she said she would like to find a place where all three could be displayed permanently.
“I keep asking people what’s the best thing to do. I want a place where everyone can appreciate them, but I have to make sure they won’t be damaged. They mean too much to me, to just let them go anywhere. They’re a part of the town’s past and a wonderful part of mine, also.”