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Somerset Place offers realistic look into the past

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Lake Phelps in the centerpiece of Pettigrew State Park.


By Ginger Livingston
Staff Writer

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Travelers searching for an out-of-the-way experience will find it nearly 80 miles east of Greenville.

Lake Phelps, the state’s second largest lake, is home to a state park and historic site, but it’s so out of the way that GPS navigation systems sometimes can’t locate the area.

But humans have been drawn to the lake's shallow, clear waters from as early as 8,000 B.C., when Native Americans began hunting and fishing in the area. Europeans discovered it 1755 and from then the lake’s surrounding wetlands and woods were exploited for lumber and later farmland.

All modern travelers have to do is to hope on U.S. 64 East watch for Exit 558 to Creswell, then follow the state’s brown historic site signs to reach both Pettigrew State Park and Somerset Place State Historic Site.

“It’s a quiet park. If you want to get away from the crowds, it’s a good place to do that,” said Jim Trostle, Pettigrew’s park superintendent.

Somerset and Pettigrew are both part of what was once the 100,000-acre Somerset Plantation, which was one of the upper South’s largest plantations by the time the Civil War ended in 1865, according to the North Carolina State Historic Sites website site.

Josiah Collins established Somerset Plantation in 1785 and during its 80 years as an active plantation fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas and flax were grown; sophisticated sawmills turned out thousands of feet of lumber.

The Collins family was unable to maintain the plantation after the Civil War and sold it. It passed through the hands of several owners before the federal government acquired it in the late 1930s as part of a New Deal effort to encourage black and white families to start new farms.

Eventually the state took over the land and in 1947 established a state park which included the Collins’ family home and other buildings that were part of the plantation.

Pettigrew State Park

One of the lures of the lake is its mystery. It's believed to be more than 38,000 years old but its origin is unknown. Scientists have hypothesized that it was created by underground springs, wind and wave action, meteor showers, peat burn and glacial activity. According to the North Carolina State Parks’ website no one explanation is universally accepted.

The lake also has an unusual ecology. It’s average depth is 4.5 feet but there are a few spots that drop to 9 feet. While surrounding streams and lakes are murky, Lake Phelps waters are clear. It’s considered one of the state’s cleanest lakes because it’s fed by rainfall.

The lake is a source of trophy-worthy bass, Trostle said, and several other fish species.

Migratory birds stop there during their spring migration northward and in late fall and early winter tundra swans visit the lake.

The lake is surrounded by big-tree forests and there are multiple hiking trails.

“There are a few sycamore trees that are large enough and hollow enough that you can walk inside,” Trostle said.

“It’s one of the places with the darkest skies on the East Coast. We have people from as far as Raleigh to come out and look at the night sky,” Trostle said. Stargazers should check in at the park office before it closes, he said. The office hours of operation vary during the seasons.

“The visitors who come out here come because they want to be part of the park,” Trostle said. “They are interested in the natural history, the cultural history of the park, as well as the recreation.”

The history includes the discovery of 30 dugout canoes that were discovered preserved in the lake. At least one is about 4,400 years old. It’s believed Algonquians made the canoes by burning the interiors of cypress longs and scraping away the charred wood. It appears they sank the canoes to store and protect them, according to the park’s website.

Two canoes are displayed at the park’s information center, 2252 Lake Shore Road, Creswell.

Somerset Place

In 1969, the state Department of Cultural Resources, which was a separate entity from the state parks system, took over the management of the Collins family home and the property immediately surrounding it, creating Somerset Place State Historic Site.

The site offers a comprehensive view of 19th century life on a large plantation.

Over its 80-year lifespan as a working plantation, it was owned by three generations of the Collins family and more than 850 enslaved people lived and worked there. There also were 50 white employees and two free black employees, according to the Somerset place website.

At its height, the plantation had more than 50 buildings on the northeast rim of the lake, including barns, saw and gristmills, a hospital, an Episcopal chapel, a kitchen complex and 26 houses for members of the enslaved community, according to the website. There also were homes for overseers, tutors, ministers and the owner's family.

By the time Somerset became a state historic site, the slave quarters had been demolished, with only a wooden sign marking where they once stood.

In the early years of operating as a state historic site, tours focused on the Collins family home and the environment. That began to change in the 1980s when Dorothy Spruill Redford researched and wrote “Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage,” which chronicled her efforts to trace her family’s ancestry.

Her research inspired a reunion of more than 2,000 descendants of the plantation’s enslaved community.

Redford worked as a program consultant at the site and then served as its director until 2008, leading the effort to transform the interpretation of slavery at the plantation. Karen Hayes, the current site manager, said Somerset pioneered the introduction of the slave narrative into historic plantation sites across the nation.

The slave houses are among the reconstructed buildings that are now part of the site along with seven original buildings.

A 90-minute guided tour is available upon request, Hayes said. It includes a 10-minute orientation in the Visitor Center and a walking tour of both the reconstructed buildings in the enslaved community and the original structures in the owner's compound. Groups of 15 or more people and student groups must register in advance.

Visitors also can explore the site on their own.

The site is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with special celebrations planned for Sept. 6 and Oct. 5.

On both days a separate 75-minute special tour will be offered, titled “Somerset Place in the New South: From Plantation to State Historic Site.”

The tour will focus on the plantation’s post-Civil War period including the demise of slavery and the lives of newly freed African Americans.

The tour will examine how the site was preserved and how the interpretation of its history has changed form the Jim Crow era to today.

While general event admission is free, there is a $3 fee per person for the special tour.

During the Sept. 6 event, visitors also can enjoy a slice a cake and a presentation of historic photographs.

The Oct. 5 event will have a speaker symposium with presentations focusing on antebellum life and reflections from staff and descendants. There also will be history demonstrations, vendors and musical selections.