Sanford historic site would fall under planned budget axe

mquillin@newsobserver.comApril 2, 2013 

  • Want to go?

    Where: 288 Alston House Road, Sanford.

    When: Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed most major holidays.

    How much: Admission is free, but donations are appreciated.

    Contact: 910-947-2051

    Email: horseshoe@ncdcr.gov.

    Online: www.nchistoricsites.org/horsesho/.

— Revolutionary War re-enactor Joe Luck has shot his replica 18th-century Brown Bess musket hundreds of times to demonstrate to visitors at the House in the Horseshoe how it might have looked – and sounded and smelled – when loyalist troops attacked patriots at this home in 1781.

Luck says he knows a misfire when he sees one. That’s what he thinks of a proposal in Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget to mothball the House in the Horseshoe and three other state historic sites to save money.

“I’ll tell you straight up: I think they’re making a bad mistake,” said Luck, who has volunteered as a re-enactor at the site for more than 20 years. “If you close these sites, you’re taking away part of your education system.”

Keith A. Hardison, director of the Division of State Historic Sites and Properties, says he doesn’t like the proposal, either. But after cutting the division’s budget 25 percent over the past three years, and being told he would have to trim another 2 percent for the coming fiscal year, he saw no other place to snip.

About 86 percent of the division’s budget goes to pay its employees, he said. The other 14 percent pays for equipment, building repairs and supplies to run the 27 sites from the mountains to the coast.

“It gets to the point where you have cut everything that you can cut on the back of the house, and then you have to look at options for the front of the house, on the public side,” Hardison said. “If we have to come up with additional savings, we have to look at closing facilities.”

Hardison said he considered several factors in determining which sites to propose closing, but the primary one was cost per visitor. That’s based mostly on the amount paid in salaries at a site divided by the number of people who use it each year.

In addition to the House in the Horseshoe, which had 17,500 visitors last year, he offered up the Zebulon Baird Vance birthplace in Weaverville, near Asheville; the President James K. Polk site in Pineville, near Charlotte; and the Charles B. Aycock Birthplace near Fremont in Wayne County.

The House in the Horseshoe drew 17,500 visitors last year, including thousands of school children. The Vance Birthplace drew 10,600; Polk, 15,700; and Aycock, 11,500, Hardison said.

The governor’s budget, presented last week, however, cut them all.

History statewide

By comparison, Fort Fisher, the remains of a Civil War fort south of Wilmington, drew 438,000 people last year, the most of any N.C. state historic site.

While there are hundreds of sites across North Carolina with cultural and historical significance, the 27 owned and operated by the state have significance beyond the county or region where they’re located. Some are of national importance.

The sites are in many ways a bargain. Most were donated to the state, and while they have been trimmed of employees in recent years, they still have legions of volunteers who donate money, time and materials to keep the sites running, as well as providing visitor programs.

Visitors don’t pay entrance fees at any state historic sites except for the Transportation Museum in Spencer, which began charging admission in 2011 to make up for its loss of state funds.

The most popular sites are considered economic engines in the areas where they sit, drawing tourists from across the state and around the country. Tourism officials say people who travel to see historic sites tend to stay longer and spend more than other kinds of tourists.

Last year, the Department of Cultural Resources reported a 15 percent increase in visitation at state historic sites compared to 2011.

State officials debated closing some of the sites in 2011 to save money but never got as far as including any specific closures in a departmental budget.

Along with the closures, which likely would take effect July 1 if approved, all state historic sites that are presently open six days a week will trim to five days starting May 1. They will all be closed on Sundays and Mondays.

In addition, Hardison said, the sites will look for other ways to generate funds, developing special programs such as after-hours candlelight tours, craft-making workshops and children’s training in how to be a soldier. Those would all charge fees, and Hardison says surveys and experience indicate guests are willing to pay for such events.

Not fully closed

No historic site can be completely shut down, only closed to the public. One employee would be kept at each of the four sites, to make sure the properties don’t become targets for vandals or thieves, and to do basic maintenance and upkeep. The houses still would need to be heated and cooled to control humidity and prevent damage to the structures and the artifacts they hold.

At the House in the Horseshoe, the two employees who most likely would be laid off each earn about $25,000 a year.

If the sites do have to shut down, Hardison said the division will try to find ways to reopen them for special events during the year, by using volunteers and temporarily shifting employees from other historic sites.

About this time each year, volunteers and staff at the House in the Horseshoe begin planning for the re-enactment held here the first weekend of each August. It depicts the skirmish in 1781 when David Fanning, who was loyal to the king’s crown, attacked the home where Philip Alston lived with his wife and six children. Alston, a patriot and a leader of his own militia, retreated to the house, and the 60 or so men shot at each other all day.

Twice, Fanning tried to set fire to the house with the patriot militia and the Alston family inside. The second time, Alston’s wife went out and negotiated a surrender.

The house, which sits in a U-shaped bend of the Deep River about 11 miles west of Sanford, is full of period antiques. The two-story, four-room Georgian mansion later became the home of Benjamin Williams, who served four terms as governor and was one of the first people in the state to plant cotton on a large scale, which he raised with the labor of more than 100 slaves.

On-site education

But what many people remember about a visit to the house is poking their fingers into the holes in the walls of the circa-1772 house made by the musket fire of Fanning’s men, said site manager John Hairr.

If they were able to come for the battle re-enactment or visited with a school group – for whom local re-enactors such as Joe Luck put on their 18th-century garb and demonstrate firearms – they might remember the sound and smell of exploded black powder. Luck was at the house on Friday, blasting his gun for 100 elementary school kids from Seagrove.

Luck figures he’s got upwards of $12,000 invested in guns and period clothing he uses just for the House in the Horseshoe. But he’s invested more than money in the place. He camps there during the re-enactment, along with other “militiamen,” some of whom he only sees once a year. When he’s on the grounds, he’s in character. In his mind, he’s back in 1781.

A retired textile worker and an Army veteran who says he served two tours in Vietnam, Luck believes seeing something is more powerful than reading about it. While he says he doesn’t want to glorify war, re-enacting the skirmish here entertains visitors while educating them about a critical time in American history, when neighbors were divided against each other over whether to seek independence or continue to serve the British king.

“The state may save $50,000 a year closing that place,” he said. “But they’re going to lose out in the end.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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