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The Umstead Coalition 
Celebrating Umstead State Park since 1934!

Born to Be Wild

06/29/2021 3:18 PM | Billy Drakeford (Administrator)

This is a five part series on the old days of the park, following a superintendent's son who was born in the park in 1960.  A big thank you to Mr. Johnson, who spent time talking with us and being recorded.  

Part 1: Reedy Creek State Park

Ranger Jess and I recently had the privilege to speak with James Johnson Jr, who was in fact, born in the superintendent’s residence in the park in 1960 and lived there until 1985.  Mr. Johnson’s father and namesake was hired to be the superintendent of Reedy Creek State Park even though he did not have any park experience, but he did have the required Bachelor’s Degree and had worked with the state previously. Since the park had been segregated since 1950, Reedy Creek State Park was the park for Blacks and Crabtree Creek State Park was for Whites.  All of the Rangers were also Black at Reedy Creek State Park. 

Reedy Creek State Park was not easily accessed during Mr. Johnson’s (Jr.) childhood because I–40 would not be completed until around 1971 and there was no Harrison Avenue entrance.  To get to the park, you had to go down Blue Ridge Road to Old Reedy Creek Road and keep going down Reedy Creek Road till you came to the turn going over Reedy Creek Lake and then up the hill.  You could also enter off Trenton Road.  Both ways were a combination of dirt roads and gravel roads that were open 24/7 In Mr. Johnson’s words, “You had to really want to be there.”

To put how secluded it was in perspective, Mr. Johnson said,  "You could go a week to a week and a half without seeing anyone on the Reedy Creek side."  I did a little digging and found a superintendent’s report from 1958 that gave the numbers entering the park from January 1st to August 31st and it was just over 14,000 people with 44 people listed as hiking and 6 as fishing.  The remainder used the picnic area, and the biggest crowds, by far, were on Sunday.   

I asked the obvious Ranger question; how did they track the fisherman and hikers so well?  Mr. Johnson said that you had to drive up to the park office, which was at our maintenance compound now, get a fishing permit, and then walk down to the lake to fish.  Just like now, most fishermen/women did not want to carry their gear that far.  The reason there were not many hikers then was they only had one small loop trail at that time. The Company Mill Trail, Loblolly Trail, and Inspiration Trail were not here yet.

The isolation suited the Reedy Creek Rangers just fine, and as Mr. Johnson put it, “The Crabtree side had more resources, equipment, and easy access, but the Reedy Creek side had the time.”  The Reedy Creek Rangers made signs and picnic tables for a lot of parks and made sure to keep the picnic area immaculate, because they felt they had to be better because they were looked at differently.

Part 2: Segregation

Being vastly ignorant about the realities of segregation, Jess and I asked what it was like for the Reedy Creek Rangers to be working then.  Mr. Johnson said, “That’s just the way it was, they didn’t worry about it, they just did their job.”  I then asked him for the real deal, but he didn’t add anything; only that his mom might remember differently.  Jess and I shared a look, both thinking we would have to talk to her in the near future. 

As a follow-up question, we asked what would happen if someone went to the wrong park, and he surprised us by saying many whites came regularly from Cary and no one cared.  I asked if anything would happen on the Crabtree side and Mr. Johnson said, “Myers Braxton (Crabtree State Park Superintendent) was a progressive person and didn’t believe in those laws.”  Mr. Johnson seemed to know that it was not an issue on the Crabtree side because he said, “Black people policed themselves.  They knew where to go and not go.”  At that time, he said, “There were three state parks that blacks could go to, Reedy Creek State Park, Hammock’s Beach, and Cliffs of the Neuse.”  After doing a little research, I think he meant Jones Lake State Park rather than Cliffs of the Neuse.

Ranger Jess asked about desegregation and what that looked like, and Mr. Johnson said, “It took some years to tell any difference because all of the groups that came to the camps during segregation were the same afterwards.  It took a while for it to look different.”  Mr. Johnson continued, “After segregation, they (the state government) had to get Reedy Creek up to speed, paving the roads and adding Ranger residences.”  When he went over to check out the Crabtree side, he immediately saw where segregation showed because he thought, “Good Lord, they have everything here. Over at Reedy Creek we had about one-fifth of the equipment.” 

Part 3: Early life in the park

Switching gears, we started asking about his life as a boy growing up in Reedy Creek State Park.  I started off by asking, “Why didn’t your mother go to the hospital to have you, as she was a nurse?” He replied, “There was 6 to 8 inches of snow on the ground and they didn’t want to risk getting stuck on the park roads.  Another factor was that the nearest segregated hospital was on New Bern Avenue.”  Again, I was surprised, perhaps naively thinking that hospitals would not have been segregated. 

When we asked him to tell us more, he said, “You couldn’t ask for a better place to grow up.  I could swim and fish anywhere.  Crabtree Creek had no pollution and had a bigger, deeper flow.  At that time there was no Lake Crabtree and no treatment plant off Crabtree Creek, and one of my favorite places was the Oddfellows tract because it felt wild.”  Whispering Pines Camp was also one of his favorite places because the fishing was so good in the one-acre pond there (No longer there.)  This pond was shallow and served as the swimming area for smaller kids at camp.  You can still see the old stone structure on Reedy Creek, which was used for raising and lowering the water in the small pond. 

The way he described it, he seemed to be the young prince of the park, having his way wherever he was.  When he was 13, his father would send him in the dump truck sometimes to empty trash or put out the fires in the grills in the picnic area.  Sometimes the Rangers would pay him five dollars to cut the grass on hot and humid days, so he had money to spend as well. 

I asked him what trouble he got into at the park, and he said, “We could talk about that a long time.”  He then said, “I cut down a large oak with a park chainsaw to have a good crappie bed to fish, got the dump truck stuck on the roads, and took the power boat out on Big Lake.”  He also had an L key which opened everything in the park, a fact that drove the Rangers crazy but made him very popular with the fishermen because of his access in the park. 

Knowing the answer already, I asked him if his sixteen-year-old self turned that key in when he moved out, he laughed and said, “No, but I don’t think it works anymore.”  My sixteen-year-old self would not have turned it in either.

“Perhaps the best thing Mr. Johnson said ‘was being with my father, who would say to me, ‘Come on boy, let’s go ride the roads (of the park)” or walk with him on his traditional Sunday walks from the Mill site to the spillway at Reedy Creek Lake.  Mr. Johnson always loved riding with his dad or other Rangers when they delivered signs because it gave him a chance to see other parks. 

One time when he was 8, his father had a superintendent meeting at Hammock’s Beach, he went out on the ferry to Bear Island and stayed there unsupervised until his father was done (That is blue ribbon non-helicopter parenting).  Mr. Johnson also got to hang out with Governor Holshouser (in office from 1973 to 1977). The Governor and Mr. Johnson senior had met at the Governor’s inauguration, and Governor Holshouser “often came to the Reedy Creek State Park to hide out from Raleigh at the Park Office.”

Part 4: "Community"

All of the Reedy Creek Rangers had close ties to the community. It was a relatively small community then, with only one house between the park and the current Veterans Memorial on Harrison Ave.  Mr. Johnson estimated about 10 houses existed between the park and Cary. Not hearing I-40 would certainly give the park a much wilder feel.  

Everyone knew each other in the community and looked after each other. The Rangers were often called upon by neighbors to help with trees across the roads and such like.  It was a reciprocal relationship and the neighbors who farmed “bombarded the Rangers with vegetables.”  Mr. Johnson told us of a hippie commune that was just outside the park, whom the Rangers really liked and would give rides to the store or downtown if they were going that way. 

At that time, there was a concession stand down at the large picnic shelter and at the Whispering Pines Camp, and a big part of the Ranger’s job every week was going to the store and stocking the canteen with snacks and ice. Generally, his father loved to do things for people, and if he could make a special request happen at Reedy Creek State Park, he did.  Mr. Johnson told us that the only problem the Rangers had was with poachers.

His younger sister Marquesa was the Ellie Mae of the park.  For you that have never watched “The Beverly Hillbillies,” Ellie Mae was the girl who always had some “critter around her neck.”  Marquesa could be seen many a day with her hands cupped together carrying some little squirrel, baby bat, or some other small animal.  He remembers one time walking outside and his sister had a bobcat pinned against a tree with a stick saying, “Look at the big cat.”  Luckily, Marquesa did not get mauled and the bobcat retreated as soon as it was allowed to.

Part 5: Goodbye to Park Land South of I-40

 Another thing we found interesting was when he mentioned park land on the other side of I-40 saying, “They used to store the mattresses from Whispering Pines in a white barn by a pond over where SAS is now.  We had like 140 acres over on that side.”  “What happened to it?” Jess asked and he jokingly said, “You might want to cut off the microphone for this one.”  He said, “There was an attempt before I-40 opened to take large sections of the park, which was shot down (one of many attempts).  After I-40 separated the park land, it was easier to “chip off/sell those pieces that people probably didn’t realize were park land.  If you turn down Old Reedy Creek Road off Weston Parkway, the little blue house on the right used to be a Ranger residence.”  Who knew?  After doing a little research, it seemed that the park swapped that land for some that widened a section on the southeastern side of the park. 

Mr. Johnson is going to come over and visit again, and we are going to drive around and let him tell us what changes have happened.  We look forward to that.  Mr. Johnson said that memories of the times at Reedy Creek come up a lot in their family and one of their favorite sayings when someone is acting out is, “It must be the Reedy Creek in you.” 

Thanks again to Mr. Johnson for his time and stories!

Know more to see more,

Ranger Billy

The Umstead Coalition

We are a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the natural integrity of William B. Umstead State Park and the Richland Creek Corridor.


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