New museum preserves village view

By Marion Blackburn

ORIENTAL, N.C. — Kershaw, once a fishing community on the Pamlico Sound, disappeared many years ago, but a new museum in Oriental is preserving that history, along with its own.

Oriental’s History Museum, which opened in July and is supported by Friends of Oriental’s History, holds photos, maps, replicas of historical documents and artifacts.

With a little more than $13,000 in assets, the Friends group helps the museum meet its minimal financial requirements, including rental on the storefront building it shares with a lawyer’s office and pizza restaurant at 802 Broad St.

Grace Evans, president, is a Massachusetts native and Oriental resident since 1975 who formerly worked for the N.C. Department of Archives and History.

She remembers vacationing in Oriental in 1961, and seeing only one sailboat docked.

She helped bring the humble museum to life by donating hours, ideas and leadership, and even scoured the town’s curbs for discarded shelves and other furnishings.

“It gives people a sense of place, a feeling for what has come before,” Evans says of the museum. “In the past few years, we’ve had tremendous growth, and our best storytellers, who were able to give people a sense of place, have died. We lost so much of our history during [Hurricane] Isabel. Pictures, diaries, all disappeared.”

Donations, memberships and T-shirt sales fund Friends of Oriental’s History, which oversees the museum and exhibits.The organization’s first board of directors met in November, and the Oriental Rotary Club provided volunteer work on the building.

Catherine Davis once lived in Kershaw and attended Kershaw United Methodist church, which closed in the 1950s.

A pump organ is nearly all that remains of the church and the village today.

Since 1999, Davis has worked closely with Evans to bring Oriental’s History Museum to life.

Her aunt, Annie H. Phelps, purchased the Kershaw organ, which later was donated to the museum.

“I was born here and grew up here,” Davis says. “When I was in school and going to church, Oriental was a fishing village. There were a lot of fish houses and crab houses. Now, everything has changed dramatically. What we’re trying to do is preserve that.”

Recent temporary displays include exhibits of the Oriental Women’s Club and Oriental Rotary Club.

Permanent display items include a dress used in a maypole dance.

“We have things people have given us that we treasure,” Davis says.

Oriental was known as Smith’s Creek until the mid-1800s, when residents chose the name Oriental after a popular steamship.

In 1935, it had about 600 residents — and no tourists.

Today, its population is 900, many from out of state, and it is known as a sailing capital.

But decades ago, residents either fished or worked at one of the area’s many sawmills, including Roper Lumber Mill, which burned in 1916. Steamships, and later railroads, transported logs and timber from the village.

Already, the museum has a small research library with 50 to 60 books and at least 40 oral histories.

It has won plenty of interest, Evans says, possible because of the village’s many unsolved mysteries.

For instance, a beautiful slate tombstone dated 1759 appeared on a creek bank, and no one has yet figured out how it got there.

The name board from the steamer Oriental disappeared, too.

Last summer, a “dugout” canoe, made from a hollowed tree trunk, washed up.

“It’s probably colonial because it has square-headed nails,” Evans says. “There’s another mystery. We have mystery after mystery.”

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