Fifteen years ago, Rick Lambeth took a break-from-work walk along the Tar River, which was low enough from drought that he could travel down the sandy bottom and see where raccoons had been feasting on mussels.
Just north of Louisburg, he stepped over what looked like a big log but still caught his eye because it was square rather than rounded. As he cleared away the dirt, he could tell that the middle of the log had been hacked away, and he realized he had stumbled on a very old boat.
“I had been looking for artifacts,” he said, “but I didn’t expect to trip over a canoe.”
Lambeth, who restores historic buildings for a living, called the state Office of Archives and History, which then referred him to underwater archaeologist Nathan Henry, who thought enough of the find to hoist the boat out of the water and dry it out.
It came, Henry could see, from a single pine log – 17 1/2 feet long. It wasn’t old enough to be a Native American canoe, having been dug out with metal tools. But it easily dated to the early 19th century or late 18th century, floated by early European settlers.
“There’s not too many of them left,” Henry said. “There were very few of them by the 20th century, once planks were more available and big trees were less available.”
Since then, the roughly 200-year-old wooden boat has mostly sat in storage, waiting for a glimpse from modern eyes. But a Franklin County historian has launched a drive to place the canoe in a new spotlight, where it can hopefully spark the imagination of children growing up along the same Tar River.
You never know. One of these middle school students will see that canoe and get inspired to be a historian.
Maury York, director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture
If he can raise the last $5,000 of his $13,000 goal, Maury York plans to place the canoe inside a museum-quality glass case in Terrell Lane Middle School – the only middle school in Louisburg.
“You never know,” said York, who is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture. “One of these middle school students will see that canoe and get inspired to be a historian.”
York told this story at the Wake Forest Rotary Club on Monday night, where he explained that Franklin County has never enjoyed the affluence of Wake, its neighbor to the south. Many of the kids who go to school there don’t get much chance to explore over the county line.
This canoe, with its wooden sides flaking off, offers a rare glimpse into a history that is frequently overshadowed by flashier battlefields and monuments, and it offers a Louisburg native an explanation for why the town of 3,330 exists in the first place.
Dugout canoes of this vintage were often lashed together and floated down the river carrying hogsheads of tobacco, farmers steering them with a pole. Once they reached Louisburg, they were transported over land to Petersburg, Va., which was, incredibly, the main market for goods at the time, despite being 107 miles away.
“I like to think of Louisburg as a multi-modal transportation hub in the late 18th century,” York said.
It doesn’t look like much, on its own. Just a hollowed-out log somebody fished out of the river. But what will they find of ours in 200 years? This stapler on my desk? The keyboard I used to type this story? Anything left behind, especially from a rural, agricultural past that bears so little resemblance to our own, is worth putting on display.
How to help
Donations to the canoe restoration fund can be mailed to The Tar River Center for History and Culture Foundation, 501 N. Main St., Louisburg, NC 27549. For more information, contact Maury York at 919-497-3252 or firstname.lastname@example.org.