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ESSAY Oldest living Confederate ChaplainTells All? Or,James B. Avirett and the Rise and Fall ofthe Rich Lands by David S. Cecelski I ^^^h ecently I toured the former site of the Rich Lands in the old r ^^Ê M piney woods of Onslow County, North Carolina. The Rich _ ^^^^H Lands had been one ofthe great plantations in the naval stores '^^L ^^| industry of the Old South. John Avirett and more than 1 25 _^^^^_^^ slaves built a kingdom out of the long-leafpine's resinous gum, producing rivers of turpentine, tar, pitch, and rosin whose swelling tides literally carried sailing vessels to every continent on earth. Succeeded long ago by corporate timberlands and loblolly thickets, the Rich Lands once sprawled across more than 22,000 acres just southeast ofwhat is now the small farm town ofRichlands, fourteen miles from the Adantic coast. With the help ofDennisJones, a local historian and educator, I went in search of the Rich Lands' former glory. Poking around pine woods, we found circular imprints ofold tar pits still scarring the earth. Dennis showed me a sticky layer of rosin residue by the banks of Catherine's Lake, the former site of Avirett's turpentine distilleries. He also pointed out an old rice-field dam and, along the banks ofthe New River, a weary sun-baked marl bed, once a source oflime for the plantation 's fields. A half-chiseled grindstone protruded from the marl, the labor of extricating it from the rock interrupted at least 140 years ago. Toward dusk Dennis led me to where Alum Spring rises out ofa gaping limestone rift. Now in deep forest, the spring used to be a popular picnic spot for some of the wealthiest planters in North Carolina. Finally, out by the Jacksonville highway, Dennis revealed an old brick cistern that is the last trace of the Rich Lands manor house. Nearby we found the Avirett family cemetery: a few graves within a crumbling brick wall tangled in trumpet vine. Across the road I could barely make out the low spot where the Rich Lands slaves are said to have buried their dead. Dennis and I only recognized most of these landmarks because James Batde Avirett, John Avirett's son, wrote an extraordinary memoir of growing up at the Rich Lands. Published in 1901, The OldPlantation: How WeLivedin GreatHouse and Cabin Before the Warlong ago faded into obscurity, but it is an unparalleled account ofNorth Carolina's turpentine boom days—the days that gave the state's citizens the name "Tar Heels."1 Indeed, there is no better account ofplantation life in the piney woods of the antebellum South. After reading Avirett's memoir, you can practically see the Rich Lands as it was 1 5o years ago: the fine manor house, the slave quarters, the distilleries, the picnics at Alum Spring, and the great piney woods itself. No aspect ofRich Lands life or turpentining seems to have escaped him. YetJames Avirett did not tell all. When I explored the Rich Lands not so long ago, I discovered that behind The Old Plantation is an untold saga, a mystery far more intriguing than the book itself. In reality, Avirett's flattering portrait of the Rich Lands conceals a forgotten tale ofecological ruin and personal tragedy. His memoir provides a wealth of raw material for the study of turpentine plantation life and piney woods culture in the antebellum South. It is a portrait of the Rich Lands so detailed, so elaborated with specific names, places, and incidents, and as insightful about slaves as their masters, that it cannot help but raise a host of intriguing issues about plantation life, material culture, daily work routines, the annual rhythms of labor, slave culture, and the society and oudook of the planter class. But it is, ultimately, something even far more interesting: a story of nostalgia and deceit that goes to the heart of plantation slavery's impact on the southern landscape and how we remember the Old South today. PINEY WOODS WEALTH AND THE FAMILY THAT CLAIMED IT The long-leaf pine, Pinuspalustris, once defined the American South as distinctively as the tall-grass prairie set apart the Great...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 5-24
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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