Beyond the Valley: Historic New Bern

By Marsha Smith

The ferry ride from Ocracoke to Cedar Island took 2 hours and 15 minutes, followed by a 47-mile drive to Pine Knolls Shores where we would spend the night in a room overlooking the beach. That 47 miles took us over 2 hours due to reconstruction of the bridge connecting Cedar Island to the next section of the Outer Banks, and somehow a vehicle had managed to roll over during the 15 mile per hour, one way escorted traffic. Still scratching my head as to how that is possible; regardless, someone was certainly not having a good day.

The beach at Pine Knolls Shores is beautiful and the hotel was great. It, too, was still under reconstruction from Hurricane Florence and had only two floors operational, but the staff was excellent, the view awesome and the water warm, well worth the night’s stay.

The next day we spent leisurely taking in the Outer Banks before driving to New Bern for a three day stay. We stayed just across the harbor from the Historic New Bern downtown and residential area, and if you are into historic architecture, this is one of the places you will want to visit and explore. Many of the homes and businesses were still under repair from the hurricane, but relatively in great shape. It was very interesting to see how well these old homes stood against the storm, yet the newer convention/visitors center fared very badly and was still closed to the public.

Our first tour was the Governor’s Tryon Palace, originally built in 1770 as North Carolina’s first permanent capital. William Tryon served as Governor from 1765 to 1771. He along with architect John Hawks designed the “palace,” (a term commonly used for elaborate British architectural design) and convinced the North Carolina legislature to authorize the construction and increase taxes on its citizens to pay for it. Needless to say, the monumental elaborate project and the increased taxes did not endear Tryon to the citizens who were already overburdened with taxation. Tryon moved into the “palace” in 1770. By 1771 the “palace” became the catalyst, prompting North Carolina’s War of Regulation, extending into the Battle of Alamance on May 16, 1771, and resulted in the hanging of seven men. By June of 1771, Tryon left North Carolina to become the Governor of New York, having lived in the house for little more than a year.

The Revolutionary War started in May 1775, and then-Governor Josiah Martin fled the “palace” when Rebels seized it to use as their seat of government after the Union took control of New Bern. North Carolina became a state in 1789 and three years later the North Carolina city of Raleigh became the new capital. Only four state governors lived in the “palace” and it subsequently had other uses such as a boarding house, school, and even a Masonic Lodge.

In 1798 a cellar fire destroyed the house, leaving the kitchen and stable, however the kitchen also burnt in the early 1800s. The kitchen and stables were separate from the main building, accessed by covered walkways. The stables remain today.

New Bern native Maude Moore Latham (1871-1951) dreamed of rebuilding the “palace” and restoring its elaborate landscaping and grounds covering the 14 acre site. She wanted it to be a memorial to her son, Edward, who died in 1918, serving his country in WWI. She started planning in 1939 and established a large trust fund to do so in January of 1944. In 1945 she promised the state of North Carolina that she would reconstruct the “palace” and grounds through the Tryon Place Commission, if the state would purchase the land. She was very persuasive and the land was acquired and the appointment for the commission was accomplished. Latham passed away in 1951 before the “palace” was complete, but had left her entire estate in trust to complete the project. Maude’s daughter, May Gordon Latham Kellenberger (1893-1978), along with her husband, John A. Kellenberger (1885-1973), and Gertrude Sprague Caraway (1896-1993) continued the commission to complete the project and saw its opening to the public in 1959.

The palace was rebuilt exactly as it was originally, down to the reproduction of wall design and flooring. Gertrude Caraway, after intense research, found the original plans in New York City at the New York Historical Library in 1939 and then another set was discovered in London, England. Maude Latham, dedicated to the authenticity of the reconstruction, traveled to England in search of like furnishings, paintings and artifacts to match as closely as possible to the original. It is an outstanding place to visit. The “palace” is amazing and the grounds are so immaculate. The docents are dressed in period attire and know the history well.

There are two other historic homes that sit on the property as well but were unavailable due to hurricane damage, however, across the street is the Stanley House that we toured as well. The Stanley House is part of the Tryon Palace complex and named for former owner John Wright Stanley, a Revolutionary War veteran. It is a two-story Georgian Style home and also quite elegant.
We took a trolley car tour of Historic New Bern and the docent provided historical information about New Bern and its history. Many of the homes have plaques by their front doors with family names and dates the families lived there and their importance or relevance to the city. The tour took us by the New Bern Firehouse Museum which we later visited and were treated to a private docent tour who was a retired firefighter and he knew his history. The museum is the actual former firehouse of Historic New Bern and has some amazing fire trucks and artifacts as well as some interesting stories. Historic New Bern is a very walkable community and we did plenty of walking the streets and along the harbor.
New Bern is also the birthplace of Pepsi Cola. Created by Caleb Bradman in his pharmacy in 1898, it was first known as Brad’s Drink, but later renamed to Pepsi Cola representing the ingredients of Pepsin and Kola nuts. By 1905 the drink was served in glasses and sold in 6 oz. bottles. In 1923 Bradman filed bankruptcy due to a drastic drop in sugar prices, and, as luck would have it, Bradman had purchased a very large amount of sugar at much higher prices just prior to the decline. Craven Holding Company purchased Pepsi Cola at auction for $35,000. The original bottling factory is no longer in New Bern, torn down some years ago, to the regret of many of the locals, a piece of history gone. However, in 1998, a store in old town called The Birthplace of Pepsi Cola opened on the 100 year anniversary of Pepsi Cola’s creation and is stocked with all kinds of Pepsi memorabilia, and, of course, there is a soda fountain where you can drink your fill of Pepsi Cola. In New Bern, “Pepsi is King.”

Next week, Fort Macon and Cape Lookout Lighthouse.