Written by Alan Piercy
Additional Perspective on the Historical and Cultural Significance of William B. Umstead State Park and Odd Fellows Tract
Last week, I reviewed the ongoing struggle over the Odd Fellows tract – 105 acres of publicly owned, forested habitat, which directly borders Old Reedy Creek Road in William B. Umstead State Park. The years-long struggle pits the RDU Airport Authority (RDUAA) and Wake Stone Corporation against preservation groups, adjacent landowners, and private citizens determined to save this forested ecosystem from an ugly fate. The purpose of this installment is not to rehash those points, which can be found here, but to further delve into the historical and cultural significance of the Odd Fellows tract, as well as Umstead State Park, which is at great risk from the proposed new quarry.
For most who have biked, hiked or run through the jewel that is Umstead State Park, the history of this land may not be front of mind. It is easy to become lost in that endorphin fueled reverie common to those of us who calibrate the miles via landmarks just as easily as through our Garmins. A bend in the trail here, water fountain there, a lake, an old family cemetery, a hill… good Lord, those hills. We know this park intimately, at least the frequently traveled parts. But not everyone is privy to the deep history of the place. The more observant visitors among us might glimpse an occasional stone chimney just off the trail through winter-bare trees, standing sentry over a long-abandoned home site. These glimpses hint at the history, but there is so much more than meets the eye.
A farming community transformed
The area now encompassing Umstead State Park, was populated as early as 1800, as small farms sprung up in the area around Crabtree Creek in northwestern Wake County. By 1810, Anderson Page, an early entrepreneur and industrialist established a water-powered mill on Crabtree Creek, known first as Page’s Mill, then Company Mill. Other mills populated the area, including the George Lynn Mill on Sycamore Creek (1871), and a later mill on Reedy Creek.
Wake County residents traveled from miles around along Old Middle Hillsboro Road, then south along Mill Road to Crabtree Creek to ground corn and catch up on local gossip. The Company Mill was in operation until the 1920’s and then largely washed away during a great flood in the 1930’s. Portions of a dam wall built at the mill site are still visible along the southern banks of Crabtree Creek within the park.
As farms populated the area, forests of oak and pine were largely cleared for fields. Early farming was marginally successful, but poor cultivation practices led to soil depletion and erosion. Depression-era farmers made futile attempts to grow cotton in the worn-out soil around Crabtree Creek, but by the early 1930’s, landowners in the grip of financial ruin were bought out under the Resettlement Administration (RA), a federal agency created under the New Deal which relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government. Through that process, in 1934 federal and state agencies combined to purchase 5,000 acres of sub-marginal land to develop a recreation area. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) work crews, largely staffed by North Carolinians, built facilities including Camp Sycamore on Sycamore Lake, and other campsites.
By 1943, with World War II underway and New Deal programs winding down, the State of North Carolina purchased this area, known as Crabtree Creek Recreation Area, for $1. The area was later named Crabtree Creek State Park.
The legacy of Jim Crow
Crabtree Creek State Park was segregated from the outset, with Camp Whispering Pines designated for African Americans on a pond at Reedy Creek. By 1950, one thousand acres of Crabtree Creek State Park was designated for use by African Americans, and named Reedy Creek State Park. The white entrance to Crabtree Creek was located off of Highway 70 in the north, while the black entrance to Reedy Creek was located to the south, at the terminus of Cary’s Harrison Avenue.
The two parks were separated by the meandering Crabtree Creek which bisects the park roughly west to east. While this fixed boundary demarcated the space, fording at any number of points could easily breach the boundary. To make the separation more durable, stands of forest were often employed. Writing about improvements to the parks in 1950, the Raleigh News & Observer provided a perverse note of reassurance to white parents that a large forested buffer would separate the white and African American youth camps, stating that the two camps would be more than a mile apart at the Crabtree Creek dividing line.
Reedy Creek State Park was one of just two facilities operated by the state park system designated for African American use, the other being Jones Lake State Park in Bladen County, southeast of Fayetteville. A third park, Hammocks Beach State Park was planned for minority use after it was donated to the state in 1961 by an association of African American teachers, however the park opened to all people following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1955, Crabtree Creek State Park was renamed for late Governor William B. Umstead, an advocate of environmentally friendly legislation who had recently died in office. In 1966, the two state parks were joined under the name William B. Umstead State Park, and both sections opened to all people. To this day, there is no road connecting the former white entrance at Highway 70, and the former black entrance at Harrison Avenue – a subtle reminder of the dark history of Jim Crow.
Odd Fellows and Foxcroft Lake
Over the decades, the Odd Fellows tract and other forested lands around the borders of Umstead have been used much like the park itself, for recreation and enjoyment of the outdoors. The Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows purchased their tract of land in 1958 and made it available to local Boy Scout troops for monthly meetings and overnight camps along the shores of Foxcroft Lake.
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