As a boy in the Depression, Q.J. Stephenson wandered into the woods out of need, trapping muskrat, mink and raccoons for their meat and their pelts, which Sears & Roebuck bought for $1.60 apiece.
But as he got older, he rambled through the wilderness of Northampton County out of pure wonder, plucking fossils and arrowheads out of prehistoric dirt, pulling petrified wood from deep holes in the mud, gathering bullets fired in the Civil War. One time, after years of scouring swamps, he found a meteorite.
Then over 50 years, Stephenson slowly built a museum out of his collection, shaping it into a house in his front yard, its walls made from soapstone, mussel shells and beaver teeth. He carved dinosaurs out of cedar, using deer hoofs for the tail spikes. He built totem poles out of cypress knees, poison ivy vines and feathers.
He named his creation the Occoneechee Trapper’s Lodge, a shrine of North Carolina folk art. By the time Stephenson died in 1997, he had sent both his art and his fossils to the Smithsonian.
But Garysburg, pop. 1,057, lies hidden in a remote patch of eastern North Carolina where the only sign of modern life is a post office with nobody inside on a Tuesday afternoon. In the town hall, a bulletin board celebrates Garysburg’s first library, which is open four hours each weekday inside what used to be an elementary school. Stephenson’s temple sits empty and forgotten but for hundreds of carpenter bees.
It is, however, for sale. And though the listing price for the 1-acre lot, which includes the lodge and the house where Stephenson lived with his wife Eloise, is $32,000, his son John in Virginia told me he would probably take $28,000.
“I would love to see somebody get it who would appreciate it,” his son said. “A lot of the stuff that was outside, somebody stole. The people who took most of it didn’t know what they were taking.”
Born in 1920, Stephenson and four siblings grew up in a house that still stands across from his lodge. Son to a traveling salesman, he described the lean Depression years to an interviewer for a folk art collection in 1988: “My daddy didn’t have a job, and everything was bad. I would roam the woods and fields.”
He spent his life along the Halifax-Northampton county line, not far from Roanoke Rapids, except for a stint in the Army and another with the Civilian Conservation Corps, which took him to Northern California and the redwood country. “Out there, I think,” he recalled, “is where I really got interested in nature. I visited a lot of the old gold miners and learned a lot about pannin’ gold and rocks and stuff.”
Back home, he operated a crane with a drag line, and, “That’s where I really learned something about the Earth, by digging deeper and deeper. Each layer is like another chapter of a book. I learned that the ocean had been over the Earth three times; not once, but three different times through this section. Then I started getting help from the Smithsonian Institute. Some of my early finds I donated to them – there was a walrus tusk that I dug up.”
His collection morphed into artwork once he started noticing that some of the vines in the woods took an interesting bend, or that deer horns can look like ivory if you soak them in Clorox overnight. He built a palette out of alligator scales and shark bones and petrified wood, which he located by digging into blue-colored clay.
“It’s unfortunate he’s in such an isolated area,” said Barry Huffman of Hickory, who has collected Stephenson’s art and interviewed him for her book. “He’s a major contemporary Southern folk artist.”
Stephenson’s lodge offers samples of all those finds, complete with his hand-carved inscriptions and arrows explaining each piece: mussel shells from Boons Mill Run, ice age petrified wood, Dismal Swamp wildcat tracks. One corner offers thanks to President Roosevelt for sending him west, a tribute from a boy born in the swamp country who got to stare up at the Sierras.
I found Stephenson’s lodge by bumbling around on the Internet, and spent a delightful day driving out to find it. The drive down U.S. 158 alone is worth the trip, taking a motorist past such oddities as Beef Tongue Road, a town called Thelma, and Bobby’s Supermarket, which offers frog legs and something called “slaps fish.”
In many ways, the lodge isn’t remote at all. It’s an easy day trip from Raleigh, and only a short detour off Interstate 95. For so little money, some arts society ought to be able to buy it, preserve it and maybe put up a sign: A self-taught artist lived here, student of the ground we walk on, and all the history that crawls across it.
Want to buy?
Q.J. Stephenson’s property in Garysburg is listed with Wilkie Real Estate. Call 252-537-9012.