Josh Shaffer

Seven Springs, the town Matthew nearly wiped off the map – Shaffer

In Seven Springs, the oldest town in Wayne County, where residents have suffered through two fires, a Civil War battle, Hurricane Floyd and its far-worse cousin Matthew, this question remains:

How to keep existing?

In October, Hurricane Matthew sent the Neuse River spilling over its banks and into the town’s living rooms, beating Floyd’s 1999 high-water mark by 15 inches.

Five months later, houses still sit wide-open, their windows raised, their furniture cleaned out or sitting in yards.

The flooded U.S. Post Office operates out of a van the size of an ice cream truck.

Town Hall’s front door stands ajar, and its wooden floorboards show mildew. For reasons that are unclear, a female mannequin lay on the floor inside.

Mayor Stephen Potter, temporarily housed in a camper van with his mother, paused to count the people still living in town.

“Thirteen ... 14 ... 15 ... 16 ...,” he said. “Between 16 and 20 on the lower side.”

As the latest and most symbolic blow, Seven Springs announced last week that it will cancel Old Timey Days, a springtime festival that regularly brought 1,000 people to a riverside community of roughly 110. With storefronts still torn apart on Main Street, and both of its restaurants closed, the town is not fit for a celebration.

But what is left of Seven Springs shows a stubborn desire to live on. Potter is raising his house another 8 feet off the ground. Farther down Main Street, town Commissioner Ronda Hughes wants to reopen her store and kayak rental business as early as this spring, and maybe build a campground on the sand Matthew dumped along the shore.

Not long ago, Hughes’ 7-year-old son Jaiden sat on the back porch playing music on his cellphone for the fishermen lined up at the boat landing. He held up a handmade sign reading “Need money to lift my house up.” He collected $3.

“I think we’ll do OK,” said Ronda Hughes. “You’ve got river mud in you or you don’t.”

Sitting about 20 miles southeast of Goldsboro, Seven Springs can boast a history of endurance.

The English explorer John Lawson found settlers trading there as early as 1710, when the state’s interior was wild and home to the Tuscarora. Union artillery flattened the town, then known as Whitehall, in 1862. Fire swept through 60 years later. Floyd flooded all but four houses in 1999 and sent an estimated half the population scattering.

By the time Matthew hit, Potter said, many of the last hurricane’s survivors had died or moved on. Much of what remained for the latest flood to take was rental housing, and the desire to rebuild isn’t as strong.

Few of the owners had flood insurance. Houses with more than 50 percent damage need to be raised before they can rebuild. FEMA can help, but rental housing falls further down its list of priorities.

“My opinion is,” said Potter, “that I don’t believe we’re going to be a residential community anymore.”

Seven Springs lies along the river just downstream of Cliffs of the Neuse State Park and is a convenient take-out point for canoes and kayaks. Potter believes the town’s future lies in recreation through campgrounds and trails. With Confederate graves left behind from the 1862 battle, and new interest in the recovered CSS Neuse, the gunboat constructed in Seven Springs and now on display 20 miles away in Kinston, history might act as an added lure.

Down the street from Potter, workers are putting a new coat of paint on Mae’s Restaurant, which will reopen. “Everybody’s been trying to drive that wooden stake through our heart,” he said. “We’re not done yet.”

With time and hard work, Seven Springs might turn its river from a menace to a friend.