Gates County, the rural community in northeastern North Carolina where I was fortunate enough to be born, has been a civic booster's nightmare since it was formed in 1779. It was populated by hard-working, friendly people, but it had no distinctions. No famous person was born there. It has no well-known cities, actually no cities at all. It produced no unique product. The county's chief claim to fame is that it was bypassed by much but not all of the nation's last century of rapid change and growth. Its population is about the same today as it was in 1860. Even the Revolutionary War hero after whom it was named, Gen. Horatio Gates, following his victory in the battle of Saratoga, was disgraced the year after the name was chosen. He and many of his soldiers turned and ran in the battle of Camden, S.C., in June of 1780, giving Cornwallis a victory.
The county's lack of distinction was described by an early historian with these almost insulting words: "It was an inert county from the very beginning; there were no agitations for reform; everyone was satisfied with things as they were. Hence the value of Gates County is that it illustrates life in North Carolina under average conditions uninfluenced by the stress of progress or extreme poverty."
Gates need feel inferior no longer. At last it has something to cause chests to swell with pride. It has an unusual accomplishment.
This achievement comes in the form of a new book entitled Forgotten Gates by Thomas R. Butchko, but it is more than a book. (Forgotten Gates is published by the Gates County Historical Society, P.O. Box 98, Gates, N.C. 27937.) It is an inventory of historic architecture that preserves for future generations the records and photographs of homes in which their ancestors lived.
I get to brag a little about this project, too. A prime mover behind it was my cousin, Edith Holmes Seiling. She is modest about it, but she started the project as president of the county historical society. She and other members of the historical society raised almost $50,000 in local matching funds to pay for it. She and her husband Frank made an office upstairs in their home for Butchko, a consulting architectural historian from Elizabeth City. Over four years researchers recorded, photographed and described almost 500 historic properties, which became the basis for the book.
Of course, a reader soon discovers that Gates really isn't quite the non-entity historians have described. Its rich history began with a Native American settlement thought to have started around 500 A.D., and which existed as late as 1709. The county's English history began with a visit by an expedition from the Roanoke (Lost) Colony in 1585. During colonial times, the county was a gateway through which passed many of North Carolina's early settlers, who came from Virginia.
Not to suggest that it contained more than the average number of sinners, Gates seemed to be an attraction for early preachers. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, explored the area during an 18-day trip in 1672. Francis Asbury, the great circuit-riding Methodist bishop, preached the first known sermon in the county in 1785, and returned eight more times before 1810.
Since the county adjoins Southhampton County, Va., Gates was the focus of some worried attention following Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831. Its courthouse at the time served as an emergency evacuation center for families fearing a spread of the insurrection. The county's most significant building today is the beautiful, federal-style former courthouse, built in 1835-36 and now being restored.
Not everybody liked the quiet and peaceful county. Gates' most famous critic was the sarcastic Virginian, William Bryd, who kept a journal of his visit there while surveying the North Carolina-Virginia boundary line in 1728. Byrd wrote of Gates:
"Surely there is no place in the world where inhabitants live with less labor than in North Carolina. It approaches nearer to the description of Lubberland than any other, by the felicity of the climate, the easiness of raising provisions, and slothfulness of the people. Indian corn is of so great increase, that a little pains will subsist a very large family with bread, and then they may have meat without any pains at all, by the help of the low grounds, and the great variety of mast that grows in the highlands.
"The men, for their parts, just like the Indians, impose all the work upon the poor women. They make their wives rise out of their beds early in the morning, at the same time that they lye and snore, till the sun has run one-third of his course, and dispersed all the unwholesome damps. Then, after stretching and yawning for half an hour, they light their pipes, and, under the protection of a cloud of smoak, venture out into the open air; tho', if it happens to be ever so little cold, they quickly return shivering into the chimney corner. When the weather is mild, they stand leaning with both arms upon the corn-field fence, and gravely consider whether they had best go and take a small heat at the hough; but generally find reasons to put it off till another time.
"Thus they loiter away their lives, like Solomon's sluggard, with their arms across, and at the winding up of the year scarcely have bread to eat.
"To speak the truth, tis a thorough aversion to labor that makes people file off to North Carolina, where plenty and a warm sun confirm them in their disposition to laziness for their whole lives."
The Virginian's description confirms my county's role as affirming North Carolina's long-time reputation as a valley of humility between two mountains of conceit.
Maybe other communities outside North Carolina have made similar inventories of their historic architecture. If they haven't, they should.
This book is about much more than architecture. At a time when ever-pressing progress is reaching even into Gates (Edith Holmes says that the herrings are disappearing from the Chowan River and that it's hard to find a dirt road in the county anymore), the book gives a reader an understanding and a feeling about how people have lived in the county for the last 400 years. No one who reads it will ever forget.
Robert Pittman is editor of editorials and vice president of the St. Petersburg Times.