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YOUNG MEETS OLD
SoVaNow.com / June 19, 2013They say it’s your birthday
We’re gonna have a good time
I’m glad it’s your birthday
Happy birthday to you
— The Beatles, “Birthday,” from the White Album
They say it’s your birthday — but what if “they” had forgotten the date?
As communities around Lake Gaston gear up this weekend for the climax to an ongoing 50th anniversary party on the reservoir, the truth can finally be revealed: if not for a group of high school kids with an unusual assignment on their hands, Gaston’s dedication way back in June 1963 might have been overlooked altogether.
“Oh, absolutely,” says Kathy Dikeman of O’Sail, the organization that has coordinating the golden anniversary celebration oof Lake Gaston. (O’Sail stands for The Organization to Support the Arts, Infrastructure and Learning on Lake Gaston). Dikeman, chair of the O’Sail board, remembers the conversation well: she was talking to young Tré Harris, a student at Warren New Tech High School in Warrenton, N.C., back in the fall when he ventured to bring up the subject. “Sounds like a party,” Dikeman remembers him saying.
“June 26, 1963,” recalls Dikeman of the date that Harris singled out. “And I said, hmm, I guess we should have a party.”
And thus was born a months-long series of events, from wakeboarding competitions to 5K runs, to stir civic pride around Lake Gaston and bring attention to its history. Still, the way in which the tale unfolded begs the question:
Where are the grizzled history buffs and community elders who are supposed to keep track of this stuff?
It turns out that history isn’t just for the old folks. As part of a Project-Based Learning assignment at Warren New Tech High School, students in three successive classes researched, wrote, edited and produced what may be the most engaging — if not the only — oral history of Lake Gaston.
The book is “Ferry Tales and Other Lake Gaston Folklure,” and since its initial publication, funded with a $5,000 grant from O’Sail, “Ferry Tales” has become a hit around the lake.
It’s not hard to see why: students went out and talked with the lake’s old-timers, many of whom remembered the days when the Roanoke River flowed free and wild through the region. And wild it was: “Ferry Tales” contains a number of hair-raising accounts, of floods and drownings, tragedies and tribulations. There’s an element of Southern Gothic that is only heightened by accounts of Sherman’s Army marching by the Roanoke on the return trip home after the war, and Edgar Allen Poe decamping at the slavequarters of a Roanoke plantation to absorb the grotesqueries of the nighttime tales. (Poe’s best friend was a Pea Hill Creek landowner.)
But it’s the personal accounts that set the book apart. Tré Harris, the student who realized of the lake’s anniversary was coming up, also served as lead “Ferry Tales” interviewer and writer. (Now a college student at UNC-Greensboro, he could not be reached for comment for this article). In his research, Harris interviewed Ulysses Ross, a Warren County commissioner who grew up on the north bank of the Roanoke near Littleton — the “other” side of the river, in fact, where an poor African-American community had taken root. As a child, he and other black youths would travel many miles to Warren County to attend school. Which meant crossing the river each day. A river without a bridge.
“Ferry Tales” is named after the old Eaton’s Ferry, which for generations offered the quickest — but least safe — passage across the Roanoke. (The ferry was supplanted by the highway bridge that was built with Lake Gaston in the early 1960s). Ross’ account of riding the bus down to the river, crossing via ferry, then catching another bus to continue on to school in Warrenton makes for one of the book’s most arresting passages:
[I]t would be cold in the winter, hot in the summer ... Once you got it loaded, you could get across there in 30 minutes ... When we got to the other side, all the kids just marched up to the other bus — Bus Number 116, I remember that — and drive into Warrenton which was probably 20 miles away.
The ferry was secured by a rope that stretched hundreds of feet across the river, from one bank to the other. “We were real blessed ... nobody got hurt; nobody got drowned. It was trying times coming across that ferry,” Ross recounted to his high school-age listener. Upon reaching the south side, students boarded the second bus for the long trip to school — traveling past the building in Warrenton where the white children attended class.
Much of the credit for “Ferry Tales” goes to Warren New Tech’s 12th grade English teacher, Cheryl Sebrell, who came up with the idea of having her students go around and record the memories of the lake’s elders. “It occurred to us that we needed to let people use their own words,” said Sebrell. “That’s what makes the book really special.” The assignment also spurred the grant request to O’Sail: its gift of $5,000 paid for video recorders, laptop computers, scanners and other tools of the documentary trade. Publication was covered by the book’s proceeds.
(The first printing of 600 copies has sold out, with a second printing newly minted this week. “We thought, oh my goodness, what are we going to do if we’re stuck with this,” said O’Sail’s Dikeman. “I thought we’d be using it [leftover copies] as presents to give to people for a long time.” Instead, the book sailed off the shelves of local retailers as its renown spread. More copies will be offered for sale at the rededication ceremony at Eaton’s Ferry bridge this Saturday.)
Sebrell said some of her students took on the task of writing, some did interviews, others operated the camcorders or sketched out artwork. But the thread that united the work of all her students, she said, was the excitement of learning and discovering information that otherwise might be lost to time. “They did it because they thought it was interesting. It was not graded. It was all volunteer ... In a lot of cases, they used their weekends or Easter vacation to work on the book, things like that.”
“Ferry Tales” was 28 months in the making. Some students, like Harris, graduated and headed off to college before the book was published.
Of Harris’ insight on the approaching 50th anniversary of Lake Gaston, Sebrell agrees it “was just sort of a stray comment. But it was stray comments like that led me to propose doing this book.” How so? “Someone in another conversation mentioned how there’s really not much history about the lake,” she explained.
Now there is.
(Copies of “Ferry Tales” will be available at the rededication ceremony for Lake Gaston this Saturday from 11 until noon at The Pointe, at Eaton Ferry Bridge near Littleton. Visit http://www.osail.org, for more details)
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