Scott Parker has been around the theater his entire life, first as a boy tagging along with his father, a well-known UNC-Chapel Hill dramatic arts professor, and later in his own roles as director of the UNC-CH Institute of Outdoor Drama and a producer of “The Lost Colony.”
Through the years, the 71-year-old retiree saw many story lines build to full-fledged productions and dramatic curtain calls.
But one story, a touching moment shared between father and son, lingered back stage in Parker’s mind as a curiosity for decades.
When Parker was young, he often helped his father set up chairs and take tickets for Carolina Playmaker productions at Forest Theatre, a stone amphitheater built in the 1940s on the UNC campus.
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On one of those excursions in 1955, Parker’s father, a UNC-CH drama professor for 40 years, took his 10-year-old son to the “top of the house” at the outdoor theater and put his hand on a round cream-colored rock that was different from the older Chapel Hill area stone that made up the bulk of the structure.
“It was clearly unique,” Parker recalled recently.
“He told me this rock was thought to be ballast from one of Sir Walter’s ships that landed on Roanoke Island back in the 1500s.”
Embedded in that wall and experience was a mystery laced with history that Parker set out to unravel nearly five years ago after he retired from the institute.
Parker took his questions to a geologist at East Carolina University, a Roanoke Island historian and a nonagenarian with deep roots in Manteo.
Stanley Riggs, the geologist who Parker worked with, has been at East Carolina University since 1967, teaching and doing research on modern and ancient coastal systems.
He was intrigued by the question Parker posed:
Could this unusual rock have come to Roanoke Island on one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ships?
The stone used to build Forest Theatre where the Paperhand Puppets and others stage outdoor productions today is similar to the rock outcrops throughout Battle Park, 93 acres of mature upland forest on the eastern end of the UNC-CH campus, Riggs says.
“The theater is built out of the rocks that make up the hill in Chapel Hill,” Riggs said. “There’s a reason for that name.”
The rocky outcrop that forms the base of that prominent hill rose about 450 million years ago when a volcanic island arc that included the rocks of Chapel Hill slammed into ancient North America to form the Appalachian Mountains.
The stone high on the theater wall that Parker’s father placed his hand on almost six decades ago immediately stood out as different, Riggs said.
The rock collected around Chapel Hill is darker in color and less porous, Riggs explained, than the softer, light-colored stone at the center of intrigue.
“As a geologist, it became immediately clear that it was a limestone that had some sort of fossil material,” Riggs recalled.
Holes in the limestone bored by clams and worms told only part of the story. For the next segment, they had to go to the coast.
Clues in a National Geographic
Outdoor drama was first performed on the Forest Theatre site in 1916 to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
Several years later, Frederick Koch, a drama professor known around Chapel Hill as “Proff,” planted the seeds for a more permanent theater on the edge of the woods.
In 1940, the theater was rebuilt with funds from the Works Progress Administration, following a design by Albert “Skipper” Bell, an English landscape artist. Bell also had designed the Waterside Theatre in Manteo where “The Lost Colony,” Chapel Hill playwright Paul Green’s retelling of the mysterious disappearance of the Roanoke Island colony in the late 1500s, has been staged since 1937.
The state of North Carolina also commissioned Bell to erect a collection of buildings on the north end of Roanoke Island that were supposed to be replicas of the colony built in 1587 by the English settlers brought to Roanoke Island by John White, an intrepid Englishman, on an expedition sent by Sir Walter Raleigh.
White soon went back to England for supplies and when he returned in 1590 the settlers – more than 150 people – had vanished and cryptic clues – the word “Croatoan” carved into a fence post, and the letters “CRO” on a tree – were all he found. What those clues meant and what happened to the early settlers has given birth to many theories and a quest for more knowledge from many generations of North Carolinians still curious about the fate of the colony.
Though Bell’s buildings were later torn down or moved to other parts of the island after being deemed inauthentic replicas, lebame houston, historian of the Roanoke Island Historical Association, told Parker that Bell used ballast stones in his buildings.
Her information bolstered what Parker and Riggs had found in a July 1933 National Geographic. In it was a photograph of a young boy standing in front of a pile of rocks and boulders inside a chicken wire fence. Under the picture was this caption: “Carried ashore from the shallow waters of Albemarle Sound, near the site of old Fort Raleigh, these odds and ends of rocks so closely resemble those of Devonshire that authorities consider them part of the ballast brought over in the holds of settlers’ ships.”
When England was trying to colonize North America in the 16th century, sailors who set sail for the new world often loaded heavy materials in the holds of their ships for the long ocean voyages.
The seagoing vessels needed weight to maintain stability and if they were not loaded with cargo, the sailors often loaded on rocks, or ballast stones as they were commonly called, for deep waters.
In shallower waters, the crews often dumped their ballast overboard to lighten the ship for easier sailing or to help them move off sand bars.
Jack Wilson, a nonagenarian and native of Manteo, provided more confirmation. He told Parker he remembers seeing several young men in 1932 diving into the waters off the north end of Roanoke Island, maybe a half mile offshore, harvesting large and small rocks for Bell’s buildings.
Another piece of the puzzle
Riggs, who has long been intrigued by the Roanoke Colony, said the stone in Forest Theatre has many similarities to beach boulders found around Portsmouth, England, a port city on the south coast from where the New World settlers often set sail. But that opinion is based on research he’s read about the stones in Portsmouth. He has not yet been there to take slabs of the rocks and study them in a lab.
If he had the funds to travel and do further research, Riggs said, comparisons between the shore rocks and the Forest Theatre stone could provide an answer to Parker’s question, and give Chapel Hill a concrete link to one of the state’s most intriguing mysteries.
Parker, Riggs and the others who helped trace the route of the Forest Theatre ballast stone say their quest for more knowledge from the English shores could be another development in the centuries-old story.
“If it’s really from that area, then it’s a piece they brought over,” Riggs said. “It’s another piece of evidence.”