Smithfield Herald

Tobacco Farm Life Museum hopes to bring more visitors

Greg Worthington, left, watches as his father, George, loads a Civil War-era cannon at the Kenly Tobacco Farm Life Museum.
Greg Worthington, left, watches as his father, George, loads a Civil War-era cannon at the Kenly Tobacco Farm Life Museum.

The Tobacco Farm Life Museum is a portal to Eastern North Carolina history, and its staff hopes more people will start coming through the doors.

Located in Kenly, the museum is home to a restored farmstead and exhibits of what life was like on the tobacco farms of yesteryear. The museum recently landed a $50,000 grant from the N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund commission to pay for TV ads for two years.

Gayle Kildoyle, the museum’s executive director, hopes the ads will bring more people to Kenly. Before the recession, about 4,000 people visited the museum annually. That number has since dropped closer to 3,000, as schools have stopped coming on field trips because of budget constraints.

In another effort to lure visitors, the museum offers hands-on activities every Saturday. The programs range from gardening to jewelry making.

Kildoyle said the Saturday activities are bringing more people to the museum; they come for the activity and then return later to go through the exhibits. “It’s making people much more aware of us,” she said. “We’re not just a gallery and some old buildings.”

“Living history” is how one presenter described his contribution on a recent Saturday. George Worthington and his son Greg came to the museum to showcase their collection of Civil War-era guns, sabers, swords and a cannon.

The two fired cannon balls into the empty field next to the museum. One would carefully put powder in the muzzle and pack it with a large mallet. The other would then pull the string that fired the cannon. The boom could be felt, not just heard, and then white smoke would obscure the area for a few minutes. A group of kids watching from the side jumped up and down in excitement, their fingers in their ears.

“I do living history,” George Worthington said, chastising schools for what he sees as a poor job of teaching history. “People don’t see this. They don’t understand it anymore.”

William Baker’s wife works at the museum, and the two brought their kids and a friend to the Saturday event. Baker, who lives in Micro, said they like attending museum programs because they’re both educational and fun.

His son, Justin, 7, liked the living-history program “because they had cannons and soldiers out here.” Justin also liked the gift shop.

Jesse Martin of Kannapolis came dressed as a German soldier from World War II. He was one of about six German and American WWII reenactors.

Martin said every reenactor gets involved for different reasons: for him, his uncle fought the German squad he reenacts. Others might read a letter and feel a connection to a particular person, he said.

“You just kind of want to come and tell their story,” he said.

Martin picked the German side because, simply put, every reenactment needs a villain. But it’s more than that. “If you don’t have both sides, then you’ll never have the whole story,” he said.

Martin is involved also because he wants people to know history and learn from it. “I don’t feel like our school systems are teaching history like it should be taught,” he said.