New Bern’s history: From fire to hurricanes, 306-year-old North Carolina town has seen its share of disaster
March 18, 2016
The ag scene in North Carolina is far from the familiar views from here on the Plains.
Fertile soil, abundant rainfall and warm temperatures make North Carolina the perfect place for agriculture. Tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, corn, hay, wheat, potatoes, soybeans, peaches and peanuts grow there.
With numerous lagoons, rivers, lakes and wide-mouthed harbors that lead to the Atlantic Ocean, the North Carolina coast is the place to be if you love water sports and fishing. Bass, mullet, shad and bluefish can be caught in large quantities, and depending on the season, restaurants offer all-you-can-eat oysters, blue crabs and clams.
Hardwoods trees such as oak and chestnut are the basis for a strong furniture-making industry. Yellow Pine, which produces rosin, turpentine, pitch and tar, gave the state it's nickname of "Tar Heel."
“Our place sits far enough out that the water only gets about halfway across the fields
— never to the house.”
Drawn by the richness and diversity, immigrants flocked to the area from Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany and Switzerland. The most well-known of the Swiss was nobleman Baron Christopher de Graffenried, who formed the colony of New Bern and named it in honor of his homeland of Bern, Switzerland.
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New Bern resident Frank Rice grew up with the best of North Carolina's agriculture around him. His family's 93-acre farm grew tobacco, corn, sobyeans and peanuts, as they raised cattle, hogs and chickens. It also bordered the water, so the Rice family could harvest oysters.
The family lived just 1,700 feet from the shore. There was one big drawback to that — hurricanes.
"We get them all the time, but some are worse than others," he said. "The wind is continuous. It sounds like a roaring freight train and lasts for two or three hours at a time."
In 1960 when the power went off during Hurricane Donna, Rice's mother held a "hurricane party" at 1 in the morning to keep her seven small children calm.
"She was most concerned about the ice cream melting," he said. "The rain was blowing in sideways through the screened-in porch so hard it was almost horizontal. I remember getting wet going to the freezer."
While eating her ice cream, one of Rice's sisters said it tasted like salt.
Long after the kids grew up and left home, Rice's parents continued to weather the storms and flooding alone.
"Our place sits far enough out that the water only gets about halfway across the fields — never to the house. But we've had to use chainsaws to cut up the many tree trunks that fell across the 350-yard-long driveway," Rice said. "We'd get to the house to check on (our parents) and they'd be just fine."
But in 2011, Hurricane Irene struck New Bern so severely that enormous oaks were completely uprooted, falling onto several historic houses. It took months to cut the trees down and repair the damage they'd caused. It wasn't the first time this town had to bounce back from disaster, though.
In December 1922, a fire at the lumber yard and a chimney fire on Kilarmonick Street, both spurred on by 70 mile per hour winds, and started an inferno which destroyed a third of the town. So many residents lost their homes that a tent city remained in place for more than two years.
After the fire, strict rebuilding codes were put in place. Each new home had to look Victorian, and they do. It's hard to tell the old ones from the new.
That's part of what makes New Bern a big draw for architecture and history lovers. There are over 150 historical landmarks in this 306-year-old town, North Carolina's first capital. Many of these date back to the 18th century.
For many of New Bern's farming families, like Rice's when he was growing up, though the scenery is very different from that of middle America, the persevering spirit isn't. The biggest difference?
"We always had plenty of good seafood to supplement what was on the table," Rice said.❖