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New Camden Heritage Museum opens Friday

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A mannequin wears a reproduction North Carolina militia uniform in one of the new exhibits featured at the Camden County Heritage Museum and Historic Jail that officially open Friday.

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By Cindy Beamon
Albemarle Life Editor

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Pieces of Camden County's history have found a new home under one roof.

Civil War muskets and war uniforms came from local historian Alex Leary's backyard museum. Brian Forehand offered his father's collection of historic documents, including marriage records from the 1800s. Others donated a teapot, arrowheads, church pew, Civil War bullets and more artifacts that were stored in private homes out of public view.

The new collection goes on exhibit for the first time this weekend at the new Camden County Heritage Museum. The museum and Historic Jail on N.C. Highway 343 N., near the Historic Courthouse, open on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and will continue those hours from now on.

The museum's displays were organized by five Friends of the Camden Museum: Leary, Forehand, Sandra Leary, Anne B. Jennings and Dewey Burgess, with donations and contributions from many others.

"Every county needs its own museum to tell its own story, " said Leary.

Forehand said the new museum is helping to save pieces of Camden's past before they become lost.

"Now it's not going to be stuck in a file cabinet but put somewhere on display," he said.

The new museum is filled with display cases, historic replicas and interpretive panels, marking different eras in the county's history.

At the museum entrance is a photo of Sir Charles Pratt, 1st Earl of Camden, a British aristocrat after whom Camden County and many other places in the New World were named. Pratt stood up for the American Colonies in the Great Britain House of Lords to oppose taxation without representation. Camden was a province of Pasquotank County until May 9, 1777 when Camden was granted permission to become an independent county. The change happened about a year after the American colonies declared their independence from Britain.

The first display case goes farther back in time with a display of arrowheads, spear points, turtle shell, bow and arrow, and a tomahawk from Native Indians who first occupied the region.

Leary noted that the names of tribes in the region are easy to recall if you know the names of area counties: Pasquotank, Currituck, Perquimans and Chowan. The "Yawpim" Indian reservation once stood where Indiantown in Camden now exists.

The next display for the Colonial Period includes a photo of Camden's oldest two-story house that still stands. The brick house, known as Milford, is located on Shipyard Road, about three miles from the Historic Courthouse.

Only a brick remains from the home of celebrated hero Isaac Gregory, a brigadier general in the American Revolution. Forehand's father collected that brick, along with one from the home where first U.S. President George Washington stayed when he did survey work for the Dismal Swamp Canal. Leary noted that Washington surveyed the canal long before he took office and before the canal was dug.

The American Revolution, the digging of the Dismal Swamp Canal, the life of Moses Grandy, a slave born in 1786, who struggled for freedom and eventually testified at the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, England in 1843 -- all are represented in Camden's new museum.

Another glass case with a Spode teapot from the early 1830s donated by Anne Jennings, reflects a life of contrasts when the United States of America was new. The porcelain teapot, a luxury in its day, is displayed alongside records of poor houses.

"I think people will be surprised that poor houses did actually exist," said Forehand.

The next showcase contains Civil War-era displays with Remington revolvers and 1861-model Springfield musket, along with all types of bullets, mini balls and a rare artillery shell. Much of the spent ammunition was collected by Charles McDonald, who hunted for relics near his home where the Battle of South Mills took place. Leary said McDonald saved pieces from the Albemarle area's biggest Civil War battle that may have been plowed under otherwise.

Among the myriad of objects, are photos of officers from the war, including Leary's great, great uncle Col. Dennis S. Ferebee of the 1st N.C. Militia on the Confederate side. He later became county sheriff.

Displays also mark the Reconstruction Era with a railroad collection from Al and Connie Harris. There are lanterns and a ticket punch, along with a strange object that looks like a handle of some kind. It's really a key to start the locomotive.

The museum contains many more objects and information from the county's past. There's a replica of the Annie L. Vansciver, a steamer referred to as "Queen of the Albemarle" that transported produce, goods and people along waterways. The Camden Causeway did not exist in the early 1900s, so people crossed by boat to get to Elizabeth City.

Displays mark World War I and World War II, the days of moonshining, and baseball at Camden County's four high schools in the day. One of the era's major achievements was construction of the Camden Causeway in the 1940s.

Anne Jennings has compiled a brief history of Camden County churches, including some of the oldest congregations in the county, region or state.

The museum also includes new exhibits at the early 20th Century jail next door. Displays include a listing of past sheriffs, original documents and weapons from their past. Upstairs, barred doors in the bullpen were opened by prison guards by lifting levers from the outside. The eerie bang when the doors are shut on small, bare holding quarters, along with the old-fashioned stocks outside the jail, reflect a harsher era for prisoner treatment.

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