Elizabeth City museum shares “Our Story”

Published 5:14 pm Tuesday, October 4, 2022

I can only speak for myself, but over the course of my near 70 years of life I’ve learned a lot of history.

The majority of that came from school textbooks, starting with Mrs. Lee’s North Carolina History class back when I was just a child at Woodland-Olney School.

Later came a U.S. History class taught by Mrs. Pat Smith at Northampton County High School (the original one near Creeksville). I also studied World History under the tutelage of the now late Warren Sexton during my freshman year at was then Chowan College.

History can also be shared and learned about your family. Today, I yearn for those old stories spun by “Ma” (Thelma Johnson Joyner – my maternal grandmother), my mom (Blanche Joyner Bryant), and my dad and his brother (Ray and Greeley Bryant).

But have you ever wondered about our history…that pertaining to the place famous for being “half land and half water.”

A visit to the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City will fill your mind and eyes with a story about us…the 13 counties that comprise northeastern North Carolina. There, museum visitors can peruse items that tell the story of the Albemarle region.

“Our Story: Life in the Albemarle” has been on display at the Museum of the Albemarle since 2007. The display is filled with interesting artifacts from those 13 counties, which include Bertie, Gates, Hertford, and Northampton.

Research on the exhibit that eventually became “Our Story” began in 2002, a few years before the museum’s new building was constructed near the waterfront in Elizabeth City. The museum raised more than $1.5 million in private funds for the exhibit.

Once settled in their new building, the museum’s staff continued their work on the exhibit. An exhibit design firm, The PRD Group, Ltd. was drafted to help the staff refine the details of the displays, including graphics, text, artifacts, design elements and lighting.

Among the 750 artifacts on display are several items from the Roanoke-Chowan area, including Native American hand tools, Victorian-era furniture and even a Chowan College gym bag from the 1950s. The latter didn’t belong to me…if you are wondering (LOL)!!

At the center of the exhibit are two completely restored buildings – the 1755 Jackson House and a smokehouse from the 1840’s. I have fond memories of going into my grandfather’s (Harvey Joyner) smokehouse. I can still smell that salted meat, hanging from the rafters.

The Jackson House was moved to the museum from Knobbs Creek in Perquimans County. Visitors are welcomed to take a step inside the two-room dwelling that was once home to two parents and their eight children. The children in that home slept in an unheated loft.

The first section museum goers will come across is the Maritime Era, which covers the time of the Native American tribes in the area, the Tuscarora War, the introduction of Europeans in the region, the Revolutionary War, and pirates.

Of the pieces on display is a Native American canoe hand carved from a log. Browsers will also see items from Bertie and Hertford counties, including a pestle and grinding stone as well as a whelk tool used for cultivating gardens; both are circa 800-1750 A.D.

Murals and photographs that serve as backdrops throughout “Our Story” and also help tell that story.

In the Canal Era, visitors will see the progression in Albemarle region’s society as topics such as the growth of river towns, slavery, and the Civil War take center stage. That portion of the display features a confetti painted Federal style door from Gates County (circa 1830).

Also on display is a Norfolk style dresser from a citizen in Ahoskie.

A leather satchel that belonged to Civil War Lieutenant J.B. Coggins from Northampton County is also showcased as part of the display.

The teaching points located along the displays were designed to make visitors feel comfortable and to provide a learning space for school classes while touring the exhibit.

The Railroad Era focuses on the progression of agriculture and emphasis the expansion of occupations from fire personnel to journalists. Domestic work of that era was shortened and it freed people for other occupational pursuits.

A tobacco basket from 1935 is on display from the Snakebite township in Bertie County. The region’s strong fishing trade is also displayed with various jars that once contained roe and herring. History shows us that Colerain was once the center of the universe pertaining to the herring fishing industry. That quaint little town on the banks of the Chowan River was once the home of Perry-Wynns Fish Company, established in 1952, and became famous for being the largest freshwater herring fishery in the world, packing both herring and herring roe under the Tidewater Brand, the Bertie Brand and Chowan’s Best.

Meanwhile…back to the museum’s display that includes a nod to William Oscar “W.O.” Saunders, the controversial editor of The Independent. His legendary typewriter, circa 1910, is on display.

Social issues, advancements in farming equipment, World War II and the Depression are highlighted in the Automobile Era, which includes a 20th century ballot box from Gates County.

The last segment of the exhibit explores the most recent industry in the area with the Tourism Era. Souvenirs from the 13 counties in the Albemarle region are displayed.

North Carolina’s Albemarle Region is a unique place, one where the water affords us with boundless beauty and endless resources, but also serves as a barrier that we have to navigate around in order to get where we’re going. The story of this place is Our Story, a tale of how communities that dot the landscape of the 13 counties have adapted to challenges and opportunities of our unusual home.

So yourself a favor and visit this display, as well as the others at the Museum of the Albemarle, located 501 South Water Street in Elizabeth City. Museum hours are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission is free.

Call (252) 335-1453 for more information.

Cal Bryant is the Editor of Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at cal.bryant@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7207.

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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