Burwell Stark, ABG Contributor
Many cultures have ceremonies or observances that mark significant milestones in the journey from youth to adulthood. For example, the Jewish faith has its Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, the Indigenous Australians mark the passage into adulthood with a Walkabout, and the Amish broadly observe the Rumspringa. When I was growing up, fourth graders in NC public schools had the Scrapbook.
This scrapbook was not your mother’s Creative Memories. The goal of this year-long project was for each student to learn some of the basic facts and history of their home state, such as the state bird, state flower, state motto, etc. Beginning in Autumn and ending in late Spring, each child, or more likely each child’s parent(s), was responsible for collecting and assembling as much information as possible about the state and then compilingthat information into a large three-ring binder. Each entry had to be on its own page with a brief description and image of the fact.The completed work was bulky, representing months of effortor, presumably, a week of panic the before the due date.
Given the short attention span of the 10-year-old researchers, especially the males, the collected information was not exhaustive. However, for everyone, except perhaps the teachers, the scrapbooks were informative. Some of the interesting facts I can still recall about the Old North State (the official nicknameand official state song) are that it is: the home of the first powered air flight (Kitty Hawk); the oldest public university in the United States (UNC Chapel Hill), and; the location of America’s first mystery (the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke) that didn’t descend into cannibalism – I’m looking at you, Jamestown, VA.
Other information was new to me, such as: the state capital of Raleigh was founded in a bar (Isaac Hunter’s Tavern); NC witnessed “Babe” Ruth’s first professional homerun (March 7, 1914 in Fayetteville); both the Vanderbilts (Biltmore) and the Rockefellers (Overhills) had very large estates in NC, and; the state is the native home to the Venus Fly Trap (Hampstead). The list goes on and on; however, one historical fact I didn’t learnuntil much later was that NC was home to one of only a handful of planned African America resettlements in the United States – the Tillery Resettlement Community of Halifax County.
In 1935, as America was just starting to claw its way out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt oversaw the creation of the Resettlement Administration (RA) as part of the New Deal. The goal of the RA was to resettle “struggling urban and rural families to planned communities” designed by the federal government. While not all the planned communities across the country were designated for African Americas,several of them were. The Tillery Resettlement Farm was unique in that it was open to both white and African American farmers. According to the Concerned Citizens of Tillery (CCT) website, “The Tillery Resettlement Farm was one of the largest Resettlement Projects in North Carolina and one of only 15 African American Projects in the United States.”
Dispersed over nearly 18,000 acres along the Roanoke River, the Tillery Resettlement Farm was eventually home to more than 294 forty- to sixty-acre farms, each costing about $7,454 ($140,561 in today’s money). In 1936 the name was changed to Roanoke Farms. Eventually, after a large flood, the white farmers were moved away from the African American farmers to better land that was less-prone to flooding; the black farmers remained on the land that bordered the river. The tobacco allotments went with the white farmers and the black farmers were “instructed to grow cotton, soybeans, corn, and peanuts.”The white section became known as Roanoke Farms and the black section was designated Tillery Farms.
This, however, is only the start of the story. Tillery Farms attracted settlers from across North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Florida and even as far away as Arkansas. The would-be farmers moved to the area, were given sub-standard housing (when compared to their white neighbors at Roanoke Farms), and faced many obstacles, both from nature and society. Yet many of those families held on and, in doing so, succeeded. The children of the settlers, besides working in the fields with their parents, filled the local school. Interestingly, that school was the Tillery Chapel Rosenwald Elementary School, “one of 46 Rosenwald Schools in Halifax County, and more than 800 in the state, built through a partnership established by Booker T. Washington and Julius Rosenwald, president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, to improve rural education in black communities.” Many of those children went on to graduate from high school and over half graduated from college.
However, Tillery was not a success due to the government intervention or simply because of the opportunities it gave black families. It was a success because of the people who settled there – many of whose descendants still live on the land today.
Driving to Tillery, as it is now known, is an opportunity to see remnants of the vast swaths of pine forests that led to NC being known as the “Land of the Long Leaf Pine” (official state toast). While the official Tillery US Post Office (Zip Code 27887) is located near the juncture of two rural state highways, the Tillery Community History House Museum is around the corner on Community Center Road. Housed within a restored Resettlement House, the museum is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 am to 5:30 pm, other times by appointment, except when under state-wide stay-at-home orders due to a global pandemic, such as comprised the majority of 2020. Inside the museum one can trace the history of the New Deal resettlement project and the Tillery Community through an exhibit designed by a partnership of the CCT’s History Committee and the 2004-2005 Duke University Document Study Students.
The importance of the museum overshadows its size: it documents the triumph of black farmers and families in the face of racial prejudice during the Jim Crow era, the economic struggles of the Great Depression and beyond, and through the hard-fought victories of the Civil Rights movement. It is truly a hidden treasure.
North Carolina has a complicated but rich history that extends back before the formation of the United States. The 12th colony to become a state (Nov. 21, 1789), it was also the 10th state to secede from the Union (May 20, 1861). These were facts I discovered when compiling my Scrapbook back in fourth grade. While I learned that one of the earliest protests during the Civil Rights Movement occurred at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro (Feb. 1, 1960), I had never heard of the Tillery Resettlement or its generational success until I drove past the museum one day on my way to a meeting. If it were not for my love of country roads and driving through small towns, I might never have been introduced to the historical jewel that is only 30 miles from my front porch. Thankfully I found it, and look forward to sharing the story of Tillery with my children and many others.
Sam Burnham, Curator
If you’re of a certain age and spent any time at all traveling when you were young, you’ve seen that teal blue roof, those angled covers above the gas pumps, that trade mark red script against a school-bus-yellow sign. I know that on the Coastal plains of Georgia and Florida, you could see a Stuckey’s from at least a mile away. Billboards up and down I-75 announced pecan log rolls, souvenirs, food, gas, and more. Stuckey’s is one of the great stories from the American South.
The story begins like the best Southern stories. W.S. Stuckey, Sr. was born on Dodge County farm in 1909. He was just getting his start in adulthood when the Great Depression hit and the bottom fell out of the cotton prices. So in 1931 Stuckey left UGA, right in the middle of his third year of law school to do what he could to help keep his family’s farm going.
With food scarce, Stuckey often had to hoist his starving mules back to their feet to plow the fields. There were too few jobs and times were tough. But middle Georgia had an ace in the hole. There was an indigenous crop that was mostly untapped. It was a sleeping giant waiting to be awakened.
Stuckey begged a local fertilizer dealer for a job doing anything. He was hired to go out and buy pecans. So with $35 borrowed from his grandmother, every dime she had, he set out in a Ford Model A coupe which was unreliable at best. He traveled the countryside John King, a black man who worked on the family farm. On many nights Stuckey and King were so exhausted from work that they slept soundly on the pecan bags. King would eventually own his own Stuckey’s store.
From his pecan sales he started his own pecan wholesale business. He bought a pickup truck and started buying his own pecans to sell for processing His philosophy was simple: “You’ve got to be honest with the public. And you’ve got to work. Of course good luck won’t hurt.” It was a philosophy that worked.
In 1937, Stuckey decided to make the most of the winter lull. He used some of his pecan sales profits and open a roadside tourist stand. In this lean-to shack he sold pecans, cane juice, homemade quilts, syrup, cane juice, and cherry cider - all you can drink for a nickel. A Texas housewife once told him “You must be crazy building a candy store in a cotton patch 10 miles from a dried-up town.”
The idea hits him. He decided to start a candy store. He busted up in the middle of his wife Ethel’s bridge game and asked her to whip up a batch of pralines...something she had never done before. Inexperience was no deterrent. You can’t sell pralines you don’t have. so Ethel and her sisters Hazel and Pearl worked some magic. Soon they’re turning out candy four times a day in their home kitchen and would walk it 2-3 miles out to the roadside stand where Stuckey had signs posted for marketing and selling the fresh goods. “CANDY MADE FRESH TODAY.”
Once Stuckey made enough to open his first real store in Eastman he sold his roadside shack to a farmer and the first ever Stuckey’s became a hen house. Humble beginnings.
The company thrives on the concept that “every traveler is a friend.” During the post World War II economic boom, travel became a big part of American culture. Stuckey’s strategically placed their stores along US highways 17, 301, and 1. These were main arteries for the annual snowbird migration. And northerners headed for Florida they were met by those famous teal sloped roofs. Marketing brought them in. Southern hospitality brought them back.
We’ve already mentioned that John King came to own his own Stuckey’s store. During segregation Stuckey’s was listed in the now historic “Green Book.” The stores were listed in the publication informing black travelers that they were welcome at Stuckey’s for food, gas, and other road trip necessities. While many locations chose to turn black customers away, Stuckey’s welcomed them.
So the company was on the cutting edge socially. But W.S. Stuckey was also a pioneer in the use of data. He did his own traffic studies on the highways observing the amount of local and out of town travelers. He would drink several cups of coffee and then drive until he needed to make a pit stop. That’s where he would build the next store. Everything from the slope of the roof to which side of the road the store was built on was determined with marketing in mind. He had a plan for everything.
His planning was so effective that in less than 20 years, the company had expanded from a lean-to shed in a cotton field to 29 modern stores. The company’s influence began the spread out further and further from Eastman.Stuckey believed in people. He rewarded executives and employees with interest in stores rather than raises. They built stock in the company that way. For example, a secretary making $75 a week would gross $16,000 a year due to her interest in the company. His business model was brilliant: “taking a bunch of good country boys and training them, giving them interest in the store, and having them do the finest job you’ve ever seen.”
By 1960 the company based in Eastman, Georgia had 160 stores. Only 10 of those were company owned. Franchisees pulled the wagon and Stuckey saw to it they were looked after. And that is how a man started with a shed in a cotton field and used some innovation and some good old fashioned Southern hospitality to build a roadside mainstay. I won’t steal all of present CEO Stephanie Stuckey’s thunder. She has done extensive research into her family’s business, her heritage, and was kind enough to share some notes from a book she hopes to publish. Perhaps we’ll do a review of it when the time comes. What I’ll definitely do is discuss her new role and the company’s future in the second part of this story.
Sam Burnham, Curator
Southeast Virginia has become a special place to me over the last four years. Between a visit to Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown followed up by my son being assigned to the Norfolk area with the Navy, we try to get to Virginia when we can.
Recently we visited a Virginia landmark that is definitely worth mentioning. A love of history pulled us to this location. It had plenty to offer.
Named for President James Monroe, Fort Monroe was originally commissioned by President James Madison. The War of 1812 convinced him that America needed coastal fortifications to defend the country against invasion. These fortresses still dot the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Fort Monroe’s strategic location protected the Hampton Roads as well as the James and York Rivers. It was such a prime location that a military presence was active here until 2011.
Early in the fort’s history a young 1st lieutenant by the name of Robert E. Lee was assigned to fort. He worked as an engineer while stationed at Fort Monroe. His son, Custis, was born there.
The fort earned the name “Freedom’s Fortress” during the War Between the States. The US maintained control of the fort throughout the war and escaped male slaves who made it to the fort were considered contraband and would not be returned to the Confederacy. This led to thousands of slaves fleeing to Fort Monroe seeking asylum and freedom.
In March , 1862 the fort was witness to the Battle of Hampton Roads. The ironclads USS Monitor and CSS Virginia slugged it out in the waters of Hampton Roads. It is not uncommon for fishermen and boaters to encounter live ammunition from the war in this area.
After the war, the casemate was used as a prison cell for Confederate President Jefferson Davis after his capture in Irwin County, Georgia. Davis was eventually moved to a more humane location at the fort. Davis spent two years imprisoned at the fort before being released without ever facing trial.
Fort Monroe served on long after the war. It played a role defending the Chesapeake during the Spanish-American War, both world wars, and throughout the Cold War.
Today there are several plans that would repurpose the fort. Buildings inside and just outside the walls serve as homes and businesses. The architecture is beautiful. Tourists visit museums and eat in restaurants. People use the fort for walking and jogging. The historic and cultural draw brings people who want to learn about what happened at Fort Monroe. The waterfront location brings tourists to the public beach. Weddings are popular in the fort’s churches. Fishermen and boaters flock to the marina. Two centuries old and yet Fort Monroe is still finding new ways to stay relevant.
With what I saw at this location, I think it’s safe to say Fort Monroe will be an important place for at least another century. It’s one of those places people want to visit. With wise use and planning, there’s no reason that it won’t serve the Hampton area as an economic engine for years to come.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire