Johnston County’s most famous daughter will soon have her own silver-and-black state historical marker.
The N.C. Department of Cultural Resources will place a sign commemorating Ava Gardner’s life near her grave in Sunset Memorial Park. Motorists will see the sign heading east into Smithfield on U.S. 70 Business, close to the intersection with N.C. 210.
The Hollywood star became eligible for a marker on the 25th anniversary of her death, which passed earlier this year on Jan. 25. The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield wasted no time before filing an application with the state, museum director Deanna Brandenberger said.
Gaining approval will further cement Gardner’s legacy in the community, Brandenberger said.
“This is something that will really acknowledge her contribution to this county and this state, and to this town, on every level,” she said. “Not only as a cultural icon, but for the public services that she performed that really were played down in comparison to her beauty.”
The state will place an order for the sign in July, and it should be ready in October.
The museum plans to hold a dedication ceremony this fall, and the Ava Gardner Museum is working to bring a little star power to Smithfield to oversee the unveiling. Brandenberger would not name any names but said she hopes to get someone with a personal connection to Gardner who traveled in the same Hollywood circles.
The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee had to approve the precise wording of the marker. It will note that she was born in Johnston County in 1922; acted in 67 films from 1941 to 1986; and earned an Academy Award nomination.
To qualify for a highway historical marker, a person or place must have statewide significance. Since the program began in 1935, the North Carolina has erected more than 1,400 of the silver-and-black markers.
Farther into Smithfield, at U.S. 70 Business and Front Street, a marker placed in 1955 honors Edward W. Pou (1863-1934), who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1901 to 1934. He is buried 200 yards south of the marker in Riverside Cemetery.
Gardner’s sign will also point visitors to find her grave in Sunset Memorial Park. Although she had lived in London for decades before her death, Gardner made plans to be buried alongside her family in Smithfield, Brandenberger said.,
“She wanted to be where she was loved. These were her roots,” Brandenberger said. “Even when she was in London, she said the rain reminded her of North Carolina.”
The grave is already a popular destination for Gardner fans, Brandenberger said, and they keep her simple foot stone decorated with her favorite, yellow roses. So many come to pay tribute to the star, she said, that the museum installed signs and a concrete pathway leading to Gardner’s grave in the cemetery.
Gardner continues to inspire fans, Brandenberger said, because her journey from Grabtown to Hollywood tells people that anything is possible.
“I think that Cinderella story is always appealing,” she said.
In Washington, Rep. David Rouzer recently picked up the efforts begun by former Rep. Bob Etheridge to commemorate Gardner with a U.S. Postage Stamp. In 2006, Etheridge got congress to rename the Smithfield Post Office as the Ava Gardner Post Office.
The honor of a North Carolina highway historical marker also comes with an informational website hosted by the state. Find Gardner’s at bit.ly/ava-marker.
Ava Gardner Historical Marker
The N.C. Highway Historical Marker Advisory Committee will place a marker on U.S. 70 Business near Ava Gardner’s grave in Sunset Memorial Park. The marker will read:
An actress in 67 films,
from 1941 to 1986. An
Academy Award nominee;
Johnston County native.
Gravesite 100 yards W.
Source: N.C. Department of Cultural Resources