Part One: The happy and sad story of ancient Washington County, North Carolina

by Angela Perez

I am no historian.
But I have a heavy burden on my heart and the raw ache of nostalgia over the state of things in one tiny place in North Carolina.

Poverty and decay seems to be the order of the day back home in Washington County, N.C. where I was born and raised. These days, the rural northeastern county manges to pick up some business from oblivious tourists anxious to get down Highway 64 to the Outer Banks, but other than that, there just isn’t much happening here.  More than 27 percent of the county’s population is listed as living below the poverty line, according to NC Policy Watch, and the massive layoffs over the past decade by what was once the county’s largest employer, the pulp and paper company Weyerhaeuser, have decimated much of the lower-middle to middle-class.

A drive around the county seat, Plymouth, reveals rotting old mansions and dilapidated colonial-era homes.  The historic downtown located along the serene Roanoke River has a few shops scattered along Main Street but many of the buildings are empty and falling down.  Some of these beautiful old relics don’t even have back walls and you can look through the grimy busted-out windows to see the Roanoke River rolling endlessly along behind them.   Many of the schools and churches I attended or country stores and restaurants my family frequented are just mostly rubble.
And yet, despite the lack of jobs and persistent poverty, people remain here and raise their families and survive.   Outside of the only three towns that are incorporated – Creswell, Plymouth, and Roper – there are endless miles of farms, growing tobacco, corn, cotton, and soybeans.  The eastern part of the county, heading into Tyrrell County towards the Outer Banks, boasts massive poultry farms.   Fishing in the Roanoke River, Albemarle Sound, and Lake Phelps (the 2nd largest lake in NC) provides food and recreation.   Lake Phelps is a major attraction for fishermen and birdwatchers.  The 38,000 year-old lake draws thousands of wild geese and tundra swan in the winter months.   Indian artifacts dating back 11,000 years have been found in the area and there are still prehistoric canoes buried around the lake.   Scientists have not been able to determine its origin – theories are that it was a meteor, glacial activity, high winds or underground springs.  I have spent many, many hours wandering around the water, wondering about the slaves who died here and the Indians who fished there.
The beautiful and well-preserved Somerset Place sits along Lake Phelps, offering a comprehensive view of life on a North Carolina plantation in the 1800s.  The site documents and reveals both the white owners’ and the slaves’ daily lives.  Several Civil War attacks and skirmishes occurred in Washington County and there are markers all around Plymouth denoting the locations.  The Carolina Algonquians cherished Scuppernong grapes, a variety of muscadine grape that originated in this part of N.C.  One of the county’s townships is still named Scuppernong and you can discover vines growing on most every farm and in most of the yards and around churches.  Kids growing up here grow up knowing well the tart tang of those fat, thick-skinned grapes.
Needless to say, there’s endless history in this county and while some has been preserved, so much of it is falling to the ground in a county too poor to pay for the overwhelming amount of preservation called for.   It’s been many years since I moved away from this region where most of my family still resides.  My grandfather fished every body of water in and around this county all the way from Martin County to the Outer Banks.  It is part of my psyche and when I visit, I feel sad that time just sort of left this place behind and its residents to fend for themselves.  But fend they have.  My heart aches when I see these places so full of history turned back to the dust from the whence they came.  Places like Washington County – indeed, many of the counties along Highway 64 from Raleigh to the Outer Banks are dying a slow death.  Still, there’s a lot of beauty if you just peer in close enough.  Here’s what that looks like to me in that sweet sad old county.
Author’s note: after you view the photos, click here for Part Two. 

30 comments

  • This was an insightful article from the EYES OF THE AUTHOR!!! I enjoyed every minute of it and even shared it on my facebook page. I, too, born and raised in Plymouth understands the compassion this article was written. I live here with my family. We are happy and doing very well. Some of the negative comments i find rather strange since the story is from of the view of the author. and bwahahahahahaaaa at the comment about Edenton’s worse looking better than Plymouth’s best. Can we say that sounds like a 15 year old comment. Hashtag: Childish!!! #Childish. Thank God i was able to enjoy the article, chuckle at some parts and even finished reading it with a lump in my throat. What a well written article! Love it!!!

    Like

  • By the way, I shared this with Mr. Morgan. He said to tell you it is an excellent project and he gives you an A! 😉

    Like

  • Angela, this is amazing. What a labor of love. Thank you.

    Like

  • Willie, I’m a vet also and have a pretty nice resume, but I’ve found, in my travels, studies, and career that someone who feels the need to pump themselves up the way u did is covering for something. I work with many credentialed people and none of us walk around mentioning it.

    Like

    • Covering for something?

      I put my name and contact info out there specifically so readers such as you could contact me for more info about the project here in Plymouth. You might have done me the courtesy of identifying yourself so that I could discuss the project with you, rather than making an innuendo and remaining anonymous. And as I said, I have apologized to Ms. Perez for the tone of my earlier post.

      Like

  • No need for a name

    Grew up in Plymouth, it is part of who I am and I embrace that but when I graduated in 1990…I left! I still visit due to family but if I had no family there, I would never visit. Some find it sad that I would say that, but it’s the great thing about America–we have free will and choices.

    Like

  • I’m posting this to let Ms. Perez’s readers know that I sent her an email a few days ago apologizing for the tone of my comments about her post about Washington County. I could have made my point without such harshness and I regret that I didn’t count to 10 before I pushed the send button. I’m old enough to know better than that.

    Still, my concern remains: That a reader whose only impression of Washington County is what he/she read in that post is going to think that no one is trying to do anything to reverse that. That is not true. There are people who are trying very hard to do something about it. But the problems are very deep and our resources here, as everyone knows, are very limited. I would never try to deny that there are problems or try to conceal them. Nothing gets fixed when you do that.

    My annoyance in my earlier comment was prompted by the fact that a group of determined people have been working diligently for three years now to stabilize and restore the Picot-Armistead-Pettiford House, and Ms. Perez’s post left the impression that the house was being left to fall down. That is not correct. Please take note of that.

    Thanks very much.

    Like

  • Plymouth native class of '74

    I left Plymouth for several years and have returned. Sure buildings and houses are decaying, but the city is very much alive! People live, eat, breathe, and go about their day living life just like others in larger or smaller cities. My husband is a truck driver and often speaks of areas in Atlanta, Chicaho, etc. that are undesirable areas to stay in. True, Plymouth could use a face lift in many areas, but let’s attempt to focus more on the positive. After living in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia for many years, Plymouth is refreshing! There is so much more to life than prosperity, riches, unending events, shopping, and the like.

    Plymouth has many active churches, Relay for Life functions, and other charitable contributing functions. We live “the basics of life.” Life is still fast paced here too, but it is more family friendly and laid back. I appreciate Willie Drye’s input. As to the person who grew up in Plymouth and moved to Edenton, it’s your “opinion” that even the worst places in Edenton are better than Plymouth. I’m happy for you that you like it there (and Edenton is a lovely city!), however, please don’t bash your hometown and mine. I realize, Angela, this blog discusses your concerns about decaying areas. I agree, it would be great if they were repaired, and even greater if they had been kept in good repair, but it wasn’t done and takes money and people willing to do the job (along with political red tape). Still, there is so much more to Pkymouth than decayed structures, so much more. People chooseto stay her, because they have family and friends here, because they love the simpler way of life. Poverty? Wow! That is a loaded statement. There is poverty throughout the world. There are some wealthy people, and some not-so-wealthy here. Such is life, but life is more than material gain. There is no good ir logical ending to this, but like Willue Drye, I felt like natives of Plymouth currently needed to represent. Trust me, I could elaborate so much more on this subject!!

    Like

  • Anthony Kevin Everett

    Your “not a historian” perspectives were very accurate and in a few instances, insightful. Growing up in Plymouth, everyone I knew had prepared their whole life to journey as far away as they could and by the age of 18 the lucky ones did just that. I don’t feel that to be slanderous nor anything I read in this article. Growing in P-Town gave me some of my favorite memories and some include you Angela. Those photos of Fourth Street Elementary are heart wrenching, those steps that led into the main intrance were a 1000 feet high to 5 year old. Mr. Estep was the principal way back then. Excellent work Angela!

    Like

    • Kevin! While I was taking photos last weekend, I drove by the house you guys used to live in and thought of your mom and dad and how we used to play in that cemetery near by. I thought of you guys and how much fun we used to have back then ruling the neighborhoods near your house and near ours.

      Like

  • I grew up in Plymouth. I visit 10-12 times a year. The problem is the leadership of the town. Plymouth was not by-passed. Everyone traveling from the western part of the state, via 64 or 95 to 64, to the OBX, travel directly through the heart of Plymouth. It is centered between Raleigh and the OBX. Yet there is nothing more than fast food and convenient stores to get tourists to stop and spend money. A dine in resturant would be a good start which would involve passing liquor by the drink. Which has been talked about numerous times but never passed to my knowledge. Funds are spent on buildings near an airport that’s seen more street races than airplane landings. That building was still vacant last time I visited which was a few months ago. Also renovation to the boat landing down town to attract large boats to dock and visit was a waste. Pretty but a waste for what was explained in the reasoning to build it. You dock and see an old train car. And the Lighthouse. How does that improve anything? There is nothing to entice anyone to bring business to Plymouth to create jobs. Yet so much money passes through there from Memorial Day to Labor Day it’s pathetic. Civil War enactments, fishing tournaments, festivals, they are all nice but it usually involves out of towners coming in and taking local peoples money and moving on to spend it somewhere else instead of back in the community. The High School is old. How many times can you remodel something and make it enticing enough for families to want their kids to attend? How good schools perform and grade out are big for people searching for a place to live. The school system is the largest employer there. Domtar is in Martin County. Plymouth makes nota from them. I mean the list is never ending. I love the town. We still own a home there on Main St. But until the leadership steps up it will never change.

    Like

  • My ancestors have lived in Washington and Tyrrell counties for centuries..it is devastating to visit and see all that history being overshadowed by dilapidated or demolished buildings..lived in Creswell until I was 13 and had no idea there was a black school in the Cherry area ( I use to ask my dad where did he go to school because they were still separate in the early 50’s). One gentleman made a comment that only the slum still live in Washington counties and he would not be caught there after dark..well I say to you is..you left to make another county beautiful and forgot about the beauty they left behind. There are still respectable and caring family’s that live there. My mother retired from nursing in Maryland and is now back there..my sister is assistant to the CEO at WCH..There are people there that strive to keep what they have beautiful in the hopes they can pass it along to future generations. There are also people who could care less and only live for today..Seems like downtown is all people care about anymore, despite the crumbling beauty that travels beyond the Roanoke River. I grew up in Columbia until the age of 4 and then my family moved to Creswell ..These small towns are the backbone and foundation for what was pure and simple. Truly if you are not committed to develop solutions and revitalize..negative comments are not needed because you left and never looked back..Interstate bypasses are great for travelers. .but not for those small towns who depend on them. I fear they will turn into ghost towns if everybody leaves without looking back!!

    Like

  • I was born and raised in Plymouth,however I’ve only gone back twice (what a shame) Therefore, I was not there long enough to view Plymouth like I wanted too .Then again I did see the street where I grew up on and I saw some improvements and decaying conditions. I plan to visit again this time hopefully I will have more time to see what is really going on. Enjoyed reading the article ..”Marion Heath Perry

    Like

  • The author is right. It’s a dying town. Does anybody care enough to make a difference? I also grew up there and remember the vibrant life it once had. Can Plymouth be saved? Can we make a difference? I am willing to help. Thank you to the author of this blog for speaking out. You did the right thing.
    Patricia

    Like

  • Thank you for you life story Willie Drye, just like a UNC grad, narcissistic and not a clue. How an author has such poor grammar I don’t know. For those of us who grew up in Washington, Bertie, Hertford Counties, we thank you for bringing your smug money to small town USA so you can act like a big shot. Harry Lewis Thompson would slap you if he were still alive.

    Like

    • Harry Thompson and I were good friends. I visited him often when he was docent at the Port o’ Plymouth Museum, attended his annual oyster roasts in Windsor, and he attended our annual Christmas parties every year. I visited him at his bedside before he died. In short, I knew Harry well and considered him a dear friend. I conferred with him about the work that’s been done on the Picot-Armistead-Pettiford House and followed his advice. And I don’t have a lot of money, I assure you.

      Like

  • Your first sentence says it all: You’re not a historian. You don’t want facts to get in the way of your opinions.

    My name is Willie Drye. I’m the author of two books and am working on a third that will be published next year. I’m a contributing editor for National Geographic News, chairman of the Plymouth Town Planning Board, and chairman of the Plymouth Museum Council. I’m a sixth-generation North Carolinian, a US Army vet and have been a journalist since I graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1981. I invite you to verify my credentials by simply doing a Google search of my name. I think you’ll find something like 3,600 entries.

    As a journalist and author, I’m very familiar with and fully supportive of the concept of the free exchange of ideas and opinion in the open market of publication. But I also firmly believe that anyone who is going to present an opinion or a story owes it to readers and to his or her professional credibility to do a little digging to see what is actually going on. That means that you have to put your feet on the ground and talk to some of the people you’re writing about. And you simply did not trouble yourself to talk to anyone. You formed your opinion and wrote your headline, and then you wrote your story.

    I do wish you’d talked to me or anyone else in Plymouth before you wrote this dirge. It’s a colorful essay on decay and nostalgia in a small Southern town, and here in the South we do decay and nostalgia better than anyone else, and we love to lament the dear, departed past. I love reading Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers and William Faulkner because they have a deep understanding of our fondness for nostalgia and what once was and what might have been, and they do a beautiful job of expressing it. Plymouth fits those themes in many ways. And if you’ve every read “The Mind of the South” by W.J. Cash, you’ll find a journalist’s brilliant assessment of our Southern quirks and many statements that apply to Plymouth.

    But there are things going on in Plymouth that you clearly missed or willfully ignored during your 15-minute drive-by hack-job breezy windshield survey of the town.

    Plymouth has profound problems. I won’t argue with you about that. My wife and I have been living here since 1997 and we’ve spent a lot of our time trying to deal with those problems. Progress is slow and we’ve wanted to bang our heads against the walls at times in frustration. Still, things have been accomplished.

    Speaking strictly for the Picot-Armistead-Pettiford House, work is going on there to preserve that historic structure. I’m the chairman of the non-profit Plymouth Museum Council that was formed to save the property. In 2011, grants from Preservation North Carolina and Dominion North Carolina Power and in-kind contributions from local residents who want to see the property preserved enabled us to put a new roof on the building. The shiny new roof is clearly visible in the photo you shot of the property. That roof cost something on the order of $25,000. Additional work has been done since then. As you so clearly stated, there’s not a lot of money here, and we’ve had to repeatedly try to recreate the miracle of the loaves and fishes to try to make small, incremental improvements.

    So I think your essay is a colorful, insightful post on our beloved Southern themes of nostalgia and decay. But as journalism, it’s way, way off base and bordering on slander. I really think you owe a clarification to your readers and to those of us who live in Plymouth and are doing what we can with the little we have to try to improve this town a little bit at a time. And if you want to talk to me, I’ll gladly meet with you, buy you lunch, show you some of the work that’s being done, and not say a word about this post. Send me an email at wdrye001@hotmail.com and I’ll send you a phone number where you can reach me. Till then . . .

    Like

    • I think you have done and are doing a terrific job. I use to live in Roper from 72-84. My husband was born and raised in Roper. It was a nice area then but was starting to lose businesses in downtown Plymouth and Roper. I really hate to see what is happening there. Been awhile since we have been back.

      Like

  • I don’t believe anyone desires to stay in poverty and doesn’t want better for themselves and their families. I value my upbringing in Washington Co. The problem is not the people’s inability to change their situation, the problem is we as educated and financially stable adults who have left these areas have forgotten the value to give back and implant seeds of change within our communities. We can write and expose these harsh factors and conditions but has not attempt to implement programming, grants, outreach, or donations to change these issues. My family and church has personally implemented new programming for the youth within Washington Co. as well as scholarships. I do not live in the area anymore, but I continue to do my part. Maybe more should jump on the ban-wagon.

    Like

  • I have experienced the same feelings and heartaches you have. When I return home on special occasions, my early morning walks include many of those areas. My family still resides in the area and many are retired. I still have vivid memories of my childhood in Plymouth. The village raised me and I am thankful for that. I am a 1967 graduate of Washington County Union High School in Roper,NC. The mighty “Beavers”. I still have my class ring and I wear it everyday. Mr. E.V. Wilkins Principal will be forever remembered as the anchor that inspired many generations in Washington County. He instilled in us the vital importance of an educations. Be hopeful things will change for the better.

    Like

    • Oliver – I only wish I had photos of my high school principal – Julius Walker – from back in the day (the 80s) – and his assistant – W.D. Davenport. They knew how to run a school and keep us all proud and on the straight and narrow.

      Like

  • homeiswheretheheartis

    Thanks for highlighting Washington County in your blog!! Even though I relocated from the area right high school this blog has truly awakened some fond memories of my childhood growing up in Plymouth, NC. It is very unfortunate that our history is not being preserved. The society in which we live in today is unlike the true southern living I was fortunate to live and breath in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Again thanks for sharing your thoughts on Ancient Washington County, North Carolina.

    Like

  • I’ll take our “character” over Edenton’s “class” any day

    Like

  • I was raised in Plymouth and moved 30 miles away to Edenton in the early 70,s. I got involved in the town and county’s politics. We worked hard thru zoning and things like that to keep Edenton from going the same way Plymouth has. I am proud of the way Edenton Turned out. Even our worst areas look better than most of Plymouth;s better areas. It IS sad what has happened to the town that I grew up in.

    Like

  • I reside very close to Washington County and I frequently visit the area to fish and visit family. The people here are in poverty because they choose to stay that way. Most people in poverty there don’t do anything to help themselves get out of the state in which they are in. Plymouth could be such a beautiful place. Main Street could be amazing and you could honestly take a step back into history if things there weren’t falling apart! The best part of Plymouth is Main Street (Water Street actually) only because of its historical references. The Lighthouse, the Boat Ramp (Which gets loads of activity through out the year) and the Museum are the the only places worth noting in Plymouth. The replica war ship is awesome as well. Other than those places Plymouth is not somewhere I’d want to be after dark. I can say the same about Roper, Creswell… and pretty much any other area in Washington County. Anything historically relevant worth viewing is usually offset by the slum that reside in the area. Kudo’s to your blog!

    Like

  • Enjoyed your time line

    Like

  • Reblogged this on mylauraleigh and commented:
    A great reflection of my home, Washington County, NC. It is so sad to see a place with such history and natural resources not reach it’s full potential!

    Like

    • I grew up in Plymouth. It was a lovely town back in the day and it is dying. I remember Saturdays spent downtown and everybody came out just to walk the streets of Plymouth. There were fireworks on the river. Goodies from the “Five & Dime Store” I would love to see it come alive again.
      Are there grants to help? I am willing to come together to help make a change and save Plymouth. I am glad someone reached out and exposed the situation. The author of of this blog told the truth, Please don’t try to cover up the mess it is in.
      Patricia

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s