New Bern’s Riverside District-photo essay

MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE

Those are the words some literate maniac scrawled on the side of a rusted train car that once sat, with various other industrial castoffs, on a small plot of land behind the office of T.J. McKnight Inc., the piling contractor that, from the late 1970s until just recently, operated on North Craven St. in New Bern, beside Mamie Sadler’s long-abandoned general store and a block west of the Neuse River.

That train car was one of the first things that caught my eye when I began exploring New Bern’s  Riverside District in the late 1990s, seeking scenic oddities to document after enrolling in the photography program at Carteret Community College. I smiled every time I saw it, just knowing there was someone out there strange enough to spray those words across its scarred surface in stylish white script.

Train Car, 2010.

Train Car, 2010.

McKnight’s office was just down the road from the old New Bern Oil and Fertilizer plant, a late 19th century construction whose silos rose stories above the houses and businesses along North Craven St. before being demolitioned in 2016. By the time I began photographing the area the plant was long gone, but remnants of its singular industrial architecture remained. As did a security guard, nearly as antiquated as the odd dagger-toothed machines still littering the grounds, who promptly told me to vacate the premises, immediately.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

North Craven St. is just one corner of a larger cross-section of New Bern that has fascinated me since I was a child, an area that runs roughly from Cedar Grove Cemetery on George St. northwest along the National Ave./Oaks Road corridor to Glenburnie Park and east to the river.

It’s a world I was familiar with long before New Bern was the tourist destination it’s known as today, before the Riverfront Convention Center and the big riverfront hotels. In the late 1970s Barbour Boat Works still built Silver Clipper Deluxe’s on the banks of the Trent, on land where the North Carolina History Museum now sits, and a ride up and down the escalator at the Belks store on Middle St. was still a weekend novelty.

But even back then, once you moved north of Broad Street, past the historical plaques and waterfront manors, things were different.

Here was, to paraphrase music writer Greil Marcus, the old, weird New Bern.

These weren’t the buildings that tourists sought out, the ones pictured in the Chamber of Commerce brochures and billboards. These were the places where people worked, day in and day out to provide for their families. These were museums of labor, monuments to survival that stretched back to the era of the lumber mills that once churned night and day throughout the Riverside District.

My dad would sometimes take me on drives down there, telling stories of the summer he spent working in one of those lumber mills, stacking boards still warm from the blade in the heat and choking dust. I wish I could remember more of those stories.

Today, many of the area’s old industries and small businesses have been abandoned, while a few have stood their ground. Though some parts of the city are virtually unrecognizable from the mid- ’70s, when my family relocated here from Greenville, New Bern’s northeast realm still bears the worn, unreconstructed face that I remember from my middle school days. Driving the area now, I follow a map that’s drawn more in memories than asphalt and earth.

On Bern St., F.R. Danyus Elementary, where I attended fifth-grade, has been transformed into a child development center, the drab, prison-like grounds I recall from youth now radiant with day-glo playhouses and the clamor of children. Travel east to George St. and you pass Religious Community Services, where I once shot a photo essay for a school assignment on local soup kitchens. Hang a right and there’s Register’s Glass Shop, which administered to my car’s shattered windshield in the late 1980s after one of my ill-advised off-road adventures.

F.R. Danyus Elementary, 2017.

F.R. Danyus Elementary, 2017.

At the corner of Guion and North Craven streets, take a left and you pass the remains of the fertilizer plant silos, now scraped and bulldozed into rows of small grey pyramids.

A few yards further, across the train tracks and to the right, sits the empty lot that was once home to Tom Mcknight’s piling business, where my uncle worked for years helping construct hotels and piers across the southeast. Roll on another block and you pass Moment of Truth Ministries, formerly a Caro-San distribution office where my cousin was employed as a driver many moons ago.

From here you can see the long white Maola Milk and Ice Cream building near the end of North Craven St. The processing plant closed in 2014 after 79 years of production but a few of the company’s trucks can still be seen on the road and parked out back. For nearly 15 years my grandfather drove one of those trucks, going to work for the company in the early 1950s as a delivery driver before moving up to route supervisor. Until he left this world in March 2016, he would tell stories of his days on the road, bumping along the blacktops of Craven, Duplin, Lenoir and other counties, crates of glass milk bottles clanking behind him.

Maola Plant, 2017.

Maola Plant, 2017.

Circle past the Maola plant on River Road out to National Avenue and there’s Boyd’s Barber and Styling, a family establishment I used to frequent several times a year during my more hirsute teenage years. The sign on the front of the small brick building is fancier these days, but little else has changed.

From there it’s a mile, give or take, to the Oaks Road entrance to Glenburnie Park. I spent a not insubstantial part of my youth sliding down its steep green hills on a sheet of plexiglass scavenged from my grandparent’s nursery and playing on the rusted missile casing, now long gone, that was once a centerpiece of the park’s playground.

 

Glenburnie Park, 2017

Glenburnie Park, 2017

 

There’s other places on the map that I’ve missed, of course. There’s Cedar Grove Cemetery and the old Union Station Train Depot, both of which would require entire articles unto themselves. But there’s also the tiny tin-roofed house on North Craven St., now a florist but formerly a dry cleaning business, that my father once counted among his bookkeeping clients. And the dog park off of Dunn St., where me and my wife let our four-legged kids run wild when we first moved back to New Bern in 2010, before its gate went missing and stayed that way for years.

I know all these roads, all these side streets where the past superimposes itself like faded film stock across the crooked oaks, brick churches and vacant lots. They all have their stories.

But for me, since coming home eight years ago, they all eventually lead to one place: the Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, down at the dead end of Avenue A, a stone’s throw from the river.

Just beyond the park’s picnic table the grass fades into a thin strip of shoreline that snakes behind empty fields and orphaned scraps of chain link fence. If the tide’s right you can follow the sand all the way to the railroad bridge, with its black creosote-enriched support timbers stretching out into the Neuse towards Bridgeton.

Railroad Bridge, 2010.

Railroad Bridge, 2010.

On a good day, a walk along that short stretch of shore reveals random fragments from the city’s past among the knotty roots and shallow waters: an ancient Texaco sign; rusted rail spikes; a stray chunk of cement from the demolitioned silos; parts of motors, gears and other industrial fossils uncovered by passing storms and the river’s slow, erosive caress.

Waterfront Sign, 2010.

Waterfront Sign, 2010.

The lot where the train car once sat, the one that drew me here years ago, is mostly empty now. But those words emblazoned on its side, MISANTHROPY IS EVERYWHERE, well, whoever wrote that was a prophet. The sentiment seems truer today than ever. My own disgust with the human race has certainly never been more pronounced, more visceral.

But still, I keep coming back.

Several weeks ago, I found myself driving through the area at night, trying to clear the cobwebs after a week of late breaking news and early deadlines. At some point I rolled down the window, turned the music off and simply immersed myself in the beauty of the place in a way I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore: the streetlights through the Spanish moss; kids on their bicycles wheeling around the old Maola parking lot; shadows across the columned porches and burial vaults; a single light burning in an auto repair shop garage.

What I found there, in a corner of New Bern that sometimes feels all but forgotten, were some truths, old truths and not very comforting ones, but truths all the same. I take solace in that. And I hope some small piece of that New Bern remains, years from now, for my son and his children to discover, and wonder at and smile.

 

 

McKnightÕs, 2018.

McKnight’s, 2018.

Train Tracks, 2017.

Train Tracks, 2017.

Bus Stop, 2017.

Bus Stop, 2017.

Maola Truck, 2017.

Maola Truck, 2017.

Lot, 2018.

Lot, 2018.

Train Tracks, 2010.

Train Tracks, 2010.

Footprints, 2018.

Footprints, 2018.

Glenburnie Park, 2011

Glenburnie Park, 2011

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2011.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2011.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Fertilizer Plant, 1999.

Warehouse, 2018.

Warehouse, 2018.

Gate, 2010.

Gate, 2010.

X-Wing, 2017.

X-Wing, 2017.

Spectral Door, 2016.

Spectral Door, 2016.

Union Station Train Depot, 2017.

Union Station Train Depot, 2017.

Sign, 2010.

Sign, 2010.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2010.

Donald M. Miller Memorial Park, 2010.

Shoe, 2018.

Shoe, 2018.

Safety Inspections, 2018.

Safety Inspections, 2018.

Dog Park, 2010.

Dog Park, 2010.

Silos, 2010.

Silos, 2010.

 

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The last days of the Days Inn

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I have exactly one story about the recently departed Days Inn Hotel. It stars a dog, a rather unruly teen pup at the time, and includes many expletives that, for the sake of brevity and family sensibilities, I’ll leave on the cutting room floor. As usual, I blame my wife for the entire episode.

It goes like this:

In 2008, my then fiance insisted we travel from our residence in Roanoke Rapids to my hometown of New Bern for the annual Mumfest celebration. I left it to her to find accommodations that would be suitable to our tastes. Seeing that the Days Inn was within walking distance of New Bern’s downtown, she booked us and Ben, our lab/husky mix, for two nights.

Oh well, I thought, it’s old but at least it’s pet friendly.

The problem, as is often the case in my experience, was that although the hotel was friendly to the pet the pet was not altogether friendly to the hotel. No sooner had we checked in and gathered up our bags than Ben raised his leg and thoroughly drenched the pale marble tile in the grand old establishment’s lobby.

So in some small way I like to think we left our mark on the Days Inn, or at least a stain. If I remember correctly Ben did a command performance in our room later that night.

That was it, my one and only personal encounter with the Broad Street landmark, at least until a few weeks ago.

But it was always there, seemingly, in my memory at least.

It was certainly there when my family pulled up roots and relocated from Greenville to New Bern in 1975. According to Craven County records, the hotel was constructed five years earlier, which means we were both born in the year of the Metal Dog, according to the Chinese Zodiac. Supposedly we’re prudent, conservative and have good relations with people, which shows you just how useless astrology truly is.

By the fall of 2008 the Days Inn had been remodeled, supposedly. Still, it retained the ambience of an old Hollywood film noir set, it’s dark hallways and ancient smells of old cigarette smoke and perfume lending it a certain ruined grandeur.

The hotel closed shortly after I moved back to New Bern in 2010. Whatever renovations had been done hadn’t changed its appearance to any noticeable degree. Nor did it’s closure, for that matter. The old cornerstone of the Five Points commercial district was still there, seemingly as permanent and unchangeable as an ancient monolith.

But lately it had become obvious that the old gal wasn’t what she used to be. Though never exuding much Southern charm and hospitality, she was now undeniably bedraggled, and not in a glamorous, mid-70s Keith Richards way, I’m afraid. She  was an embarrassment whose era had long since passed. It was time she did the same.

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I’m sorry to say that, like many things in life, I never really saw the Days Inn until it was almost gone. And then, I couldn’t stop looking. So, a few weeks before it fell to the machines, I decided to see what remained inside.

Surprisingly little it turned out. But what was there was grimly fascinating. The walls of the former guest rooms had been transformed into works of Surrealist art, painted in bold smears of black and green mold, grey water stains, and yellowed sheetrock. Here and there the common brushstrokes of vandalism were visible: shattered glass and graffiti, discarded liquor bottles and fast food trash.

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And everywhere, remnants from the hotels recent past, exposed and without purpose: elevator doors pried open; wiring and piping scattered harum scarum, hanging in dead space; a note from a maintenance worker. And on each floor a Coke machine, its innards revealed to the stripped, shadow-laced hallways.

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It was beautiful in its disarray. And quiet.

You don’t have to believe in ghosts to feel that some part of the city’s past, some part of everyone who ever spent a night or two under that roof, was hauled off with the concrete, rebar and wiring after it was raised.

And now, driving past the deserted two acre lot, it’s hard to imagine a hotel was ever there. That’s how completely time can be erased, how quickly memory can smooth over the rough places where you once stood and leave an empty space.

Was the Days Inn an eyesore? Of course it was. But I’ve always been drawn to eyesores; at least they have character. It was never going to be beautiful or modern, no matter how much work was done. The hotel had that whiff of the old about it, in body and spirit, and that’s near impossible to overcome with new paint and more cable channels.

Maybe a new businesses will spring up in its place. Or better yet, a new city park. Who knows?

I’m just glad I got to spend a few nights in that weird old building, with the asbestos and creaking elevators and the low hum of electricity moving through its clogged and rusted arteries.

For better or worse it was part of this place, and now it’s not.

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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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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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