Wendell native Ray Hinnant explains that history is not only important for preserving our heritage, but it is also an integral part of boosting our economy.
Q: Many around Wendell who know you are familiar with your keen interest in history. Exactly how many historical groups have you been associated with?
A: I have been a former president of the Wendell Historical Society. I am the treasurer now. My wife (Carol) is the current president. I am the president of the Wake County Historical Society. I am on the board of Raleigh City Cemetery Preservation. I am also on the board of the Wake County Historic Preservation Commission and I also serve on the L.L. Polk House Foundation (Polk, a Civil War soldier who was wounded in Gettysburg, was instrumental in starting area colleges and also founded the Progressive Farmer magazine). I am a member of a couple of other local groups.
Q: To what do you attribute your love of history? Did you acquire it from your parents?
A: I would have to say I must have gotten it from my grandmother, Nell Todd. She loved history, especially family history. She was a pack rat who never threw anything away. She and my grandfather, Buck Todd, ran a grocery store in the heart of Wendell in the 1940s. She kept all kinds of information about things that happened in Wendell and with her family. When she passed away, I was able to acquire a lot of those things.
Q: So your roots in Wendell run fairly deep?
A: Yes. I was born and raised here. I graduated from Wendell High School in 1964.
Q: Were your parents tobacco farmers like many people were during that time?
A: No. My dad, Jesse Ray Hinnant – I am Jesse Ray Hinnant Jr. – worked at Noland Co. in Raleigh and my mom also worked in Raleigh for the Division of Motor Vehicles. There were three of us boys. My brother Tim is the Wendell mayor. My brother Marshall lives in Pittsboro. But the history of Wendell is deeply tied to tobacco farming and the town wouldn’t have persevered without it.
Q: Was tobacco integral in Wendell surviving?
A: Wendell was incorporated in 1903 and it was a very small town, but thanks to tobacco, it grew. Wendell was the site of Wake County’s first tobacco warehouse. At one time, we had five tobacco warehouses in town. There was a huge dependence in this area on agriculture. It was the tobacco farmers who would come into town and spend their money, helping the downtown merchants. Without the tobacco farmers, this town wouldn’t have prospered at all. Some of the tobacco warehouses are still standing. On the site of Perry’s Gun Shop was the Whitley Tobacco Warehouse. The metal building at the corner of Hollybrook and Third streets was Northside Warehouse. The old Banner Warehouse building is on Wilson Road. Of course, today, tobacco farming is not as prevalent as it was and they have all been closed for a while. There are no more tobacco warehouses in Wake County.
Q: With such a love of history, did you think about making that a career?
A: I did. When I graduated from high school, I attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and majored in history. I saw myself as a history teacher. I then went on to get my masters in history from East Carolina. I did some student teaching while I was in college and discovered I didn’t enjoy teaching. I started looking for a job and began working with the Great American Insurance Co. in Raleigh. It changed names a couple of time and eventually became Liberty Mutual. I lived in Raleigh for a while. I moved to Richmond, Va. for three years, moved back to Raleigh, and then moved to Wendell. My wife was also from Wendell and we wanted to move back home and be close to family. I thoroughly enjoyed my job. I retired in 2008.
Q: You have such a vast knowledge of not only Wendell history, but Wake County history as well. In your opinion, what is the most historically significant spot in the county?
A: If someone wants to know a lot about county and state history, they need to tour the cemeteries. The Raleigh city cemetery on New Bern Avenue was organized in 1798. In that cemetery are a lot of Raleigh’s and the state’s early leaders. There are governors and college presidents buried there. The founder of Rex Hospital is also buried there. There are just many leaders and artists buried there. And there is also Oakwood Cemetery, which was organized during the Civil War. You can find governors and prominent North Carolina leaders buried there as well. At Mt. Hope cemetery, you have there the state’s prominent African-American leaders. Cemetery tours are available and it is the best way to learn the state’s history.
Q: How do you get those who really don’t care that much about history to become engaged?
A: The key thing in getting people to care about history is to educate. Some people think it is boring but if you can just get them listening a little bit, they will begin to realize how interesting our past has been. We really need to preserve our important buildings and spaces to know our heritage but it is also vital for the economy. When people travel, they usually make it a point to tour and visit places that have a historical significance. Look at Williamsburg, Va. You could name so many other places. The money that tourism can bring should also be a big incentive to preserve our history.
Correspondent Dena Coward