The following editorial appeared in the Wilmington Star-News:
Students are filling the classrooms at Penderlea Elementary, as they have since the school opened in 1937. But this 80th year is the last for classes in the historic building, Pender County’s oldest school facility in use.
Weep not for Penderlea students – a brand-new building will open for the 2018-19 school year.
Since it opened, Penderlea School has been a source of pride for this historic community, nestled in the northwest corner of Pender County, along N.C. 11.
Wilmington’s Hugh MacRae proposed Penderlea in 1934 as a homestead project, part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. It was the first of 152 such projects across the nation.
During the Great Depression, homeless people could pay $60 a year for a 10-acre farm with a farmhouse complete with electricity and indoor plumbing. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt came to Penderlea on Aug. 7, 1937, dancing with the men and watching a pageant put on by homesteaders.
Folks who live there still say they live “on Penderlea” rather than “in Penderlea” as a nod to the community’s origins.
Penderlea remains primarily a farm community. A hosiery mill built in 1938 closed in 2005, idling 62 workers. A few years earlier it had employed nearly 200 people, third among the county’s private employers.
In North Carolina and across the nation, most rural areas are not sharing in the economic prosperity of cities.
A story in last Sunday’s Insight section documented the plight of shrinking towns in Bertie County, in the rural northeastern part of the state. Industries have closed, young people move away and essential services like health care and even grocery stores disappear.
In 2014, we reported on the decline of Columbus County’s Chadbourn, also hurt by plant closings. The poverty rate was 24.5 percent, compared with a state average of 16.8 percent.
The story on Bertie County did note that small towns closer to metro areas tend to do better, as residents can still get to jobs, shopping and health care.
We commend Pender County for supporting Penderlea with a new school. Perhaps it can be part of a foundation for the next 80 years.
The small communities that dot our region are important parts of our history, and, we hope, will be viable parts of our future. We are rooting for them, but it will take more than goodwill for them to survive and thrive. Investing in Penderlea with a new school was a solid start.