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Cemeteries, grave markers among county’s ‘Most Threatened Historic Places'

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

SUPPLY — People are less likely now to stumble across historic sites here than they were in the not-so-distant past, partly because they are documented better and partly because some have disappeared from record.

The Historic Wilmington Foundation is working to prevent the latter from happening through its annual Most Threatened Historic Places List, which covers Brunswick County as well as neighboring New Hanover and Pender counties.

The foundation’s 2014 list includes Joseph Hewett Sr. Cemetery in Supply and the wooden grave markers in cemeteries throughout Brunswick County.

The Joseph Hewett Sr. Cemetery consists of a single gravesite: that of its namesake. Joseph Hewett Sr. was the first Hewett to arrive in Brunswick County, said George W. Edwards, executive director of the foundation.

Members of the Hewett family today have applied for help and support to preserve the site, which is overgrown and abutted by homes on Kinston Street SW. A wall that once protected the grave is crumbled and brick markers have collapsed under the weight of vegetation and time; a faded red, white and blue wreath is barely visible from the dirt road.

Hewett’s descendants made significant progress toward the restoration of the gravesite during the family’s 24th annual reunion in June, Edwards said.

The wooden grave markers scattered throughout the county are rare examples of funerary art unique to this region and were first placed on the Most Threatened Historic Places List in 2010, Edwards said. Some have been found at Riley Hewett Cemetery in Cedar Grove, David I. Fulford cemetery near Supply, Camp Branch Baptist Church cemetery near Green Swamp and Cumbee-Hewett Cemetery near Winnabow; most are so deteriorated it is impossible to tell exactly whose graves they mark.

“Wooden headboards and footboards were often used in lieu of the fieldstones that were standard in inland regions, for as one 18th-century visitor to the county put it, there was ‘not a stone to be met with in a thousand acres.’ Relative to other North Carolina counties, Brunswick County has many surviving wooden gravemarkers, but the survivors are a small percentage of the many that once existed. A survey conducted about 1940 suggests wooden markers or other uninscribed memorials could outnumber inscribed stone and concrete memorials by 10 to one in some cemeteries,” according to the county’s 2010 comprehensive historical/architectural site survey, which can be found online at www.brunsco.net/Portals/0/bcfiles/planning/plan_Final_Report_-_Brunswick.... “The survival of wooden gravemarkers in the county is a testament to the durable longleaf pine lightwood from which they were cut. … Brunswick County has several wooden gravemarkers that are among the most elaborate in the state.”

The Most Threatened Historic Places List, now in its third year, is a program of the Historic Wilmington Foundation, which was established in 1966 “to protect and preserve the irreplaceable architectural and historical resources of the Lower Cape Fear region,” according to its website, www.historicwilmington.org. A small group of people from Brunswick County is actively involved in the foundation’s efforts, Edwards said.

The foundation will bring its traveling exhibit based on this year’s list to the Brunswick County libraries in Shallotte, Leland, Oak Island and Southport after the first of the year and will provide details about each site on the list. A specific schedule should be available after Christmas, Edwards said, but displays are expected to remain at each of the libraries for three weeks.

A public nomination process precedes the creation of the annual list, which is released in May in observance of National Preservation Month. Edwards said each nomination was considered and debated based on the diversity of property types, historical significance, geographic distribution and degree of threat. Eight of the nominations were selected for the 2014 list, and four sites were carried over from previous lists. He said Brunswick County residents tend to nominate “lots of cemeteries” for inclusion on the list.

This year’s process brought in the most new nominations for the list since 2008, Edwards said, “perhaps indicating both an upturn in interest in historic preservation in the area as well as development pressure on sites stimulated by the recovering economy.”

The whole point of the effort is to call attention to the places on the list “and to illustrate the importance and benefits of historic preservation,” Edwards said in a news release. “The program has helped raise public awareness of historic places as well as generate creative new solutions and ideas for sites in desperate need of attention. A threatened places program also helps the public understand the broad range of preservation concerns.

“Historic preservation is more than just saving a famous landmark; it is about preserving the old neighborhoods, schools, churches, cemeteries and commercial districts of the Cape Fear region’s diverse population.”

Jackie Torok is managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or editor@brunswickbeacon.com.