In search of history

Published 3:11 pm Thursday, August 19, 2010

Researcher Jeroen van den Hurk is shown with a date stone that gives a brief history of Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church near Harrellsville. He and a colleague have been recording historic properties in Hertford County since January.

Now in its 251st year of official existence, history abounds in Hertford County and for two out-of-area guests, they want to learn all they can absorb.

Jeroen van den Hurk and Anna Lautzenheiser have been in Hertford County since January, riding the roads, snapping photos, talking to locals and documenting the area’s rich history.

Both work for Coastal Carolina Research, a private contractor employed by the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office in an effort to perform a comprehensive survey of historic properties in the county. Their effort is funded through state and federal grants.

“The primary purpose of the project is to raise awareness of the important of our county’s historic resources and to gather information that will serve as a foundation for economic development through heritage tourism,” said Hertford County Manager Loria Williams.

The range of the ongoing research is very broad, encompassing nearly 525 properties deemed as historic in nature. Those structures include homes, farm complexes, stores, industrial buildings, schools and churches.

According to van den Hurk, over 300 of the properties are located in the rural areas of the county. The remainder are

within municipalities…Murfreesboro, Ahoskie, Winton.

“We didn’t have to worry about recording properties within Harrellsville because they already have a nationally registered historic district,” van den Hurk said.

He added that this survey will look at expanding the current historic district in Murfreesboro.

“In Winton, I don’t know if that is an expansion effort or not. I do not know if they already have a registered district,” he said.

At the outset of the project, the two researchers took a trip down each county road, look at the property and assigned a letter grade to each (A, B, C, D, etc.).

“The first reconnaissance was to see the properties; some we had previous reference to, but we had to see if they were still standing,” van den Hurt noted.

For the National Register, the property has to be 50 years old or older. Properties built in the 70’s and 80’s will eventually become historic in nature.

“For now, anything we knew was built after 1960, we drove by. We did mark it as being there for future reference,” he said.

To greatly aid the effort, files were obtained from the North Carolina Historic Preservation Office.

“We looked at what they have given us compared to what we were seeing, to sort of match things,” van den Hurt explained. “Some of the properties were changed or updated. Part of the survey was conducted back in 1976 and we’re doing a follow up on changes or, in some cases, if the structure is still standing. We’re now adding a more extensive survey than what was originally done.”

As an example, van den Hurk noted the property he was dealing with on the morning of this interview. Looking at the paperwork of Mt. Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church, located on NC 45 east of Harrellsville, he discovered that the original structure was built in 1923 and later expanded. The original structure has also been bricked over.

“Here, we talked to a couple of the deacons of this church,” van den Hurk said. “They told us that the front of the church was added in the 1990’s, but the church congregation was founded in 1892 and met in a bush shelter somewhere along the banks of the Chowan River. The church here was built in 1923 and has since been enlarged. There’s a date stone here that attests to that fact.”

The survey includes any type of building.

“Last week we surveyed a peanut storage building on Quebec Road and earlier surveyed a tobacco barn, Hare’s Mill and old fishing buildings used in the herring industry,” van den Hurk said. “If there was a building there in the 1800’s and it was knocked down and replaced with a building in 1970, then it’s not that interesting to us.”

In one case, north of St. John, a barn was discovered with a late 18th century/early 19th century house built inside.

“Sometimes you have to do a little sleuth work to discover something that otherwise looks unassuming,” van den Hurk said.

Lautzenheiser photographs the properties while van den Hurk draws a detailed sketch. Both researchers also talk with the property owners or family descendants, adding the element of an oral history to their effort.

Recently, the duo, while surveying a property, ran across five houses, each still occupied by family descendants of the original owners.”

“They have vast knowledge of the property and the area,” van den Hurk said.

“To me, the most exciting part of the day is talking to the people whose families have been here for generations,” Lautzenheiser said. “They have a connection to this area that I envy in a way. I have no idea where my family came from. That would be nice to know.”

Lautzenheiser also praised local citizens for the work they have put in preserving a slice of American history.

“It’s amazing to see how much care these people have put into these homes,” she stressed. “It’s not easy work. Owning an old house is constant work.”

Using a collection of maps, each dividing the county into quads, the researchers pinpoint their finds and facts. The project will take until the winter to complete.

“It was scheduled to end in November, but it’s one of those things that you don’t know up front of what you’re getting in to,” van den Hurk said. “We’ve seen cases where a structure during the initial drive-by didn’t appear all that interesting, but that thought process changed after doing some more research on the property.”

He continued, “It’s been good to see all these properties, but at the same time it’s sad to see them abandoned,” van den Hurk noted.

After completing the survey, the material will hopefully find its way into print.

“Eventually, they want to bundle this, using a follow-up grant, and publish books on each county,” van den Hurk said.

“It’s fun research,” Lautzenheiser added. “We have run across old homes sitting in the middle of a corn field and are falling down, but you go in and see all this amazing detail in the woodwork. You can just close your eyes and imagine what a beautiful home this once was.”

For four decades, the State Historic Preservation Office in the Office of Archives and History has conducted North Carolina’s statewide architectural survey program. The Preservation Office sponsors and co-sponsors, assists and guides dozens of local and regional architectural surveys throughout the state, all part of the statewide program whose mission is to identify, record, and encourage the preservation of North Carolina’s rich and varied historic and architectural heritage.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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