Historic day: Camden Jail, Museum open

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Camden County Historic Jail Curator Brian Forehand (right) shows old photographs to Paul Vincent during the Historic Jail and Heritage Museum's opening day on Friday. The museum is filled with artifacts from the county's history, stretching from the Colonial era and the Civil War period through World War II.


By Chris Day
Multimedia Editor

Saturday, September 16, 2017

CAMDEN — Local historian Alex Leary saw a dream come true Friday with the opening of the new Camden County Heritage Museum.

"Brian Forehand and myself have been dreaming of this for 20 years," said Leary, smiling.

Forehand is the curator at the Historic Jail, which opened along with the new museum Friday morning. Both buildings are located next to the Historic Courthouse on N.C. Highway 343.

The museum features several display cases filled with artifacts and items, from arrowheads to varsity letter jackets. There are mannequins dressed in period costumes that cover the Colonial era, the Civil War and World Wars I and II. Also featured are the American Revolution, the construction of the Dismal Swamp Canal and Moses Grandy, a slave born in the late 1700s who years later gained his freedom and became a prominent abolitionist.

There are wooden replicas of the early 1900s steamboat Annie L. Vansciver and the old Wade Point Light lighthouse.

The Vansciver, also known as the "Queen of the Albemarle," made routine trips between Elizabeth City and Coinjock hauling passengers and produce, Leary said. The boat was also known for a special trip it made once a week.

"Every Sunday it took an excursion to Nags Head to the beach," Leary said.

Wade Point Light used to sit on the Pasquotank River. However in 1955, a man bought the lighthouse from the U.S. Coast Guard for $10, Leary said. The structure was loaded onto two barges but before getting very far it fell and broke up in the river. Years later, a man named Willard Forbes was presented a single plank that was retrieved from the lighthouse wreckage. Forbes used pieces of wood from that plank to fashion the lighthouse replica, Leary said.

Visitors to the museum were steady around 10:45 Friday.

"So far it's been pretty busy," Leary said. "We've had someone in here ever since the doors opened."

One of those visitors was Paul Vincent, an Elizabeth City resident who is originally from Greensboro. Vincent said he was impressed with the museum.

"I think it's great," he said, adding that lately he's been reading up on the history of the Dismal Swamp Canal and South Mills area.

"Camden is a small place but it has so much history," Vincent said. "I'll be learning about Camden County my whole life."

Camden County resident Karl Trafton was also among Friday's early visitors.

"I think it's a nice museum," he said. "It has a lot of historical items here in our county. It's very interesting."

Bruce Long, a retired math and science teacher, was on hand to answer questions about the Battle of South Mills, which took place April 19, 1862.

Long talked about the many artifacts that were unearthed at the battle site, items such as pieces from belt buckles and locks, pipe stems, squeeze box reeds and all sorts of bullets and lead shot.

At the new Historic Jail one room is made up to resemble an old sheriff's office. There is a mannequin in period costume of Caleb Grandy, the county' first sheriff, and a display of old handcuffs and a double-barreled shotgun. There’s also Forehand's father's collection of old documents, such as marriage records dating to the 1800s. There's also the old wooden ballot boxes that Forehand said were used on election days up until about the 1980s.

Upstairs is the old jail, which looks pretty much as it always has, Forehand said. While exhibits downstairs may change from time to time, plans are to keep the jail as is.

"The jail is going to be the jail," Forehand said.

The Historic Jail and Heritage Museum are open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Leary said those hours could be extended to include another day if interest in the jail and museum grows.

"We're hoping to add another day if traffic picks up," he said.

Albemarle Lifestyles Editor Cindy Beamon contributed to this report.