Artifacts of the Month: Costume pieces from Thomas Wolfe play

When the Thomas Wolfe Society meets later this month, they’ll honor Thomas Wolfe the writer. We’d like to take a moment to salute Thomas Wolfe the actor.

In 1919, Wolfe was an eighteen-year-old college student in a playwriting class at UNC, which was taught by Carolina Playmakers founder Frederick “Proff” Koch. The student playwrights’ first plays produced on stage included Wolfe’s The Return of Buck Gavin. In the absence of a willing volunteer to play the title character, Koch convinced a reluctant Wolfe to take on the role.

When Thomas Wolfe made his stage debut as the mountain outlaw Buck Gavin, he wore a button-down shirt, pants tucked into tall boots, and this belt, which is one of our May Artifacts of the Month.

Belt worn by Thomas Wolfe

Photo of Thomas Wolfe play

Wolfe appeared alongside Leila Nance Moffatt, who played Mary Gavin. Mary wore a dress, apron, and a pair of brown shoes.

dress and apron worn in Thomas Wolfe play

Shoes worn in Thomas Wolfe play

All of these items can be seen through June 10 in the North Carolina Collection Gallery’s exhibit Making a People’s Theater: Proff Koch and the Carolina Playmakers.

Atop the Washington Monument, a pyramid from N.C.

One reason aluminum was so costly [in 1884] was because it was essential to use the highest purity aluminum oxide available, which happened to be corundum….

“The best crystals were being mined commercially in the gravels, stream beds, mountain sides and soils of the Carolinas, mostly in the Cowee River Valley of Macon County, North Carolina.

“Crystals of corundum are more familiar to us as sapphires and rubies. Rubies are the red ones. Any other color is called sapphire. They are the same gemstones  rockhounds have been seeking at Carolina gem mines every summer for years…..

“Next to diamond in hardness, corundum crystals at that time were being used primarily for manufacture into ‘jewels’ for watches and other instruments requiring precision, wear-resistant bearings. Some were fine enough to be fashioned into jewelry,  which was why Tiffany’s operated some of the deposits. Some were crushed and used as coatings on ’emery’ paper.

“And some were used as the ‘ore’ for smelting that new metal, aluminum, which possessed the special properties the builders of the Washington Monument found so attractive [for constructing its pyramid-shaped cap]….”

— From  What does the Washington Monument have to do with the gems of North Carolina?”  by Dr. Philip Garwood at the Cape Fear Community College Department of Geology (Oct. 8, 2012)

The monument reopened to the public today, nearly three years after suffering earthquake damage.

Chapel Hill: a place of magic for Thomas Wolfe and his fans

Now about the editor’s note and the ‘small southern college’—if you see anyone who has also read the note, for God’s sake make plain what I think you understand already—that I had nothing to do with it and didn’t see it until it was published. I do not deny that I may be capable of several small offenses—such as murder, arson, highway robbery, and so on—but I do deny that I have that sort of snob-ism in me. Whoever wrote the note probably put in ‘small southern college’ because he did not remember where I did go, or because, for certain reasons connected with the book, he thought it advisable not to be too explicit.

And after all, Ben, back in the days when you and I were beardless striplings—’forty or fifty years ago,’ as Eddie Greenlaw used to say—the Hill was (praise God!) ‘a small southern college.’ I think we had almost 1000 students our Freshman year, and were beginning to groan about our size. So far from forgetting the blessed place, I think my picture of it grows clearer every year: it was as close to magic as I’ve ever been, and now I’m afraid to go back and see how it is changed. I haven’t been back since our class graduated. Great God! how time has flown, but I am going back within a year (if they’ll let me).

–Thomas Wolfe in a letter to UNC classmate Benjamin Cone, July 29, 1929. Look Homeward, Angel, which features the college town Pulpit Hill, was published in October of the same year.

Chapel Hill will serve as the gathering place for Wolfe scholars and fans on May 23-24 as they assemble for the annual meeting of the Thomas Wolfe Society. This year’s conference, themed “Wolfe in His Time, Wolfe in Our Time,” will include a reading by Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s poet laureate, in the Pleasants Family Assembly Room in the Wilson Special Collections Library at 7:30 pm on May 23. Bathanti’s appearance is free and open to the general public. Other conference programs require advance registration and include talks by Wolfe scholars and enthusiasts. For more information, call 919-962-1172.

Civil War pension checks still arriving in Wilkesboro

“WILKESBORO, N.C.—Each month, Irene Triplett collects $73.13 from the Department of Veterans Affairs, a pension payment for her father’s military service — in the Civil War.

“More than 3 million men fought and 530,000 men died in the conflict between North and South. Pvt. Mose Triplett joined the rebels, deserted on the road to Gettysburg, defected to the Union and married so late in life to a woman so young that their daughter Irene is today 84 years old — and the last child of any Civil War veteran still on the VA benefits rolls….”

— From “Still Paying for the Civil War” by Michael M. Phillips in the Wall Street Journal (May 9)

It’s Shad Time!

Portrait of a man on a fish with the title "The Shad Man"
The Independent. (Elizabeth City, N.C.), 27 June 1919.

While browsing The Independent, an historic newspaper from Elizabeth City, I was intrigued by an advertisement for The Shad Man. Although the nickname amused me, I questioned the ad’s presence in a North Carolina newspaper. The advertisement was for a vendor at the Dock Street Fish Market in Philadelphia—some 300 miles north of Elizabeth City!

Why was a Philadelphia fish merchant seeking shad from North Carolina? It’s hard to say with certainty. Clearly there was a demand. That’s confirmed by the number of ads appearing in The Independent from other fish merchants in Philadelphia, as well as those in New York and Baltimore. All are seeking shad.

An article in the June 14, 1925 issue of The News and Observer, hints at one reason the merchants had turned their attentions southward. The writer notes,”The waters here, unpolluted as they are, have a tremendous advantage over the waters of the sounds to the north, with their vast cities.” Pollution, it seems, was causing a decline in shad in the north.

In fact, by the time the article appeared in The News and Observer, shad were already dwindling in North Carolina waters, too. The reduced supply had caused the price to increase from 25 cents to $2.50 per pound, according to the article.

The number of shad continued to decline into the 1930s. Writer and conservationist Rachel Carson was among those who raised the alarm. As a junior aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson was responsible for studying fish populations and writing brochures and pamphlets to educate the general public. An article she penned on shad appeared in the February 28, 1937 edition of The News and Observer. She wrote:

Many of the major rivers of New England, where shad once furnished a commercial catch of two million pounds are no longer considered shad streams. From New York to Delaware the catch has dropped from nearly 22 million pounds in 1901 to less than a million in 1934. Shad fishermen of the Chesapeake, center of the industry, took 17 million pounds annually in the late 1890s; in 1934 the catch failed to total five million pounds. On the South Atlantic coast the yield had dropped from 11 million to 2 1/2 million pounds.

The amazing picture of depletion is the product of the triple menace of overfishing, obstructing dams and polluted waterways. In narrow-mouthed bays and river estuaries the maze of nets and traps obstructing the passage upstream takes a heavy toll of fish before they have spawned. Dams for industry and navigation have spelled the destruction of the shad runs in the upper and middle reaches of the rivers. Fishways, providing a graded ascent, have been built into certain of the dams, but the shad, in contrast to the aggressive salmon, is a shy and retiring fish and will not use the ladders. In other areas lumber mills have dumped sawdust into the streams, choking their channels; silt washed from eroded hillsides covers the spawning beds, smothering the eggs and fry; industrial and municipal pollution has poisoned other waters so that shad will not enter or spawn in them.

As the shad population dwindled, state and federal officials along with fishermen attempted to find remedies. Their solutions included altering the length of the fishing season and restricting the types of nets that could be used. Some even suggested killing cormorants, a protected bird known to attack the nets of caught shad.

Today, thanks to federal and state regulations as well as the removal of some dams, shad are again returning to North Carolina waters. And each spring shad lovers can again enjoy their favorite fish and its roe. Perhaps there’s even a shad man somewhere in Philadelphia at this very moment doing his best to find some North Carolina-caught shad.


Anti-union ruling derails court nomination

On this day in 1930: By a 41-39 vote, the U.S. Senate rejects Supreme Court nominee John J. Parker. Born in Union County and living in Charlotte, Parker would have been the first North Carolinian on the court in 120 years.

Parker, a Republican who had run unsuccessfully for governor, was serving on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals when nominated by President Herbert Hoover. Senate debate centered on a 1920s case in which the judge had ruled with management about a “yellow dog” contract. The Supreme Court later upheld Parker’s decision, but the anti-union label proves fatal to his nomination.

Parker will remain on the bench and in 1945 sits as an alternate judge at the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He dies in 1958, at age 72, after suffering a heart attack shortly after dining at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel. His dinner companion: Clement Haynsworth, the Greenville, S.C., judge whose own Supreme Court nomination the Senate would reject in 1969.


When black students mounted roof to seek equality

“Seven African-American students, all studying on a predominantly white college campus in 1969, took to the roof of a classroom building. They called for equal treatment.  Instead, a call went out for the police….

“The decision to take over a Belmont Abbey campus building came amid unrest at home over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement. The attempt to drive change led Belmont Abbey to dismiss the students 45 years ago and to leave the protest largely forgotten except in the minds of those for whom it was a seminal event in tumultuous times….”

— From “45 years ago, Abbey students issued a call for change” by Matthew Memrick in the Gaston Gazette (May 3)

h/t John Robinson for spotting this time capsule of a dramatic but obscure chapter in the career of community organizer Howard Fuller.


Can oysters save NC coast from climate change?

“Antonio Rodriguez, a coastal geology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and his colleagues spent 15 years measuring oyster reefs in intertidal zones on the Carolinian coast. In a study released this week, the team reports that, over the years, these reefs have grown at a pace that would match any future sea-level rise. According to Rodriguez, this is a good case for actively restoring oyster reefs on the East Coast. ‘One could end up with a reef that will help protect the shoreline from erosion, filter water, provide fish habitat, and be able to keep up with sea-level rise,’ he says. ‘No rock sill can do those things.’

“Oyster walls are dynamic, in other words. Conventional sea walls, tough though they may be, are static. After the ocean rises enough, waves will be able to swoosh over the top of stone walls. Oyster reefs grow by accumulating drifting oyster larvae that latch on and are kept in place by sediment buildup….

“If ‘oyster-tecture’ ever does happen — and Rodriguez’s research may help it along — it will be a great example of American adaptation to climate change.”

— From “How Oysters Can Protect Houses From Hurricanes” by Svati Kirsten Narulain in The Atlantic (May 5)

Not everyone, of course, believes oysters are needed for anything but seafood platters.


Remembering Harry Golden with history on a stick

“In modern America, anyone who attempts to write satirically about the events of the day finds it difficult to concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not actually come to pass while his article is still on the presses.”

— The “(Harry) Golden Rule,” as posited by New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin

High on my personal list of underappreciated North Carolinians is Harry Golden, the Charlotte author and journalist whose proposals such as the Vertical Integration Plan hilariously exposed the vulnerability of segregationist doctrine.
Today at 2:30 p.m. a North Carolina highway marker will be unveiled at Golden’s home in the Elizabeth neighborhood, Seventh Street and Hawthorne Lane.
Just wondering: How ought Trillin’s “still on the presses” be updated for the digital age?

Zimbalist: PTL directors didn’t do much directing

“Actor Efrem Zimbalist Jr. testified Monday [in Charlotte] that the PTL board of directors, on which he once served, was little more than a rubber stamp for television evangelist Jim Bakker.

” ‘It was called a board of directors, but at no time did it operate like one,’ said Zimbalist, star of ‘The FBI’ television series, who served on the board from 1981 to 1986.

” ‘It was a board of approval or affirmation only.’ ”

Asked if he recalled approving a $390,000 bonus for Bakker, Zimbalist said: ‘Oh no, oh no.’ ”

— From the Associated Press (Sept. 19, 1989)

Like Mickey Rooney and Pat Boone, Zimbalist was a familiar face to viewers of Bakker’s “PTL Club.” He died Friday at age 95.