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Origins of Maco Light Legend Date to 1856

Southern Railway trains. Image from the State Archives.

Southern Railway trains. Image from the State Archives.

On January 4, 1856, a train accident on the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad occurred near Wilmington, giving rise to an enduring North Carolina legend. In the neighborhood of Hood’s Creek, about 8 miles outside of Wilmington, the engine of the night train collided with the mail train, upon which Charles Baldwin was the conductor. Baldwin received severe head injuries during the accident and died three days later. He was, for a time buried in St. James Cemetery in Wilmington, but his remains were moved to an unknown location and the headstone was lost.

In determining the cause of the accident, investigators discovered that Baldwin was responsible for hanging a light on the front of the mail train and had not done so. The Legend of the Maco Light that subsequently grew from the accident recounts the tale of “Joe” Baldwin, a train conductor who was decapitated in a collision.

A mysterious light seen frequently along the railroad tracks at the small crossroads was reputed to be Joe Baldwin swinging a lantern as he searched for his head. The light could be seen from a distance but disappeared as one approached it. The railroad tracks were removed in 1977, and the light has not been seen since.

Learn more about the Legend of the Maco Light and other North Carolina lore in North Carolina Legends from N.C. Historical Publications.

Bath to Broadway: Edna Ferber and “Show Boat”

On December 27, 1927, the musical “Show Boat” premiered on Broadway at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York City. Composer Jerome Kern and Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II adapted Edna Ferber’s 1926 eponymous novel to the stage.

“Show Boat” was the first dramatic musical on Broadway, featuring a strong plot and incorporating lyrics into the staging. Its classic songs like “Ole’ Man River,’ “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” and “After the Ball” were further popularized by soprano and Winston-Salem native Kathryn Grayson in the 1951 film adaptation.

Ferber’s story about the interconnected lives surrounding a river showboat was based on the four days she spent on the James Adams Floating Theatre in Bath. Already a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ferber visited Beaufort County to research river theater and, while on her trip, met performers Charles Hunter and Beulah Adams, who were fans of her work and had staged her stories.

Ferber took a second trip to North Carolina in April 1925 to meet a showboat in Bath. She lived, played, worked, rehearsed and ate with the theater company on the huge boat, gathering inspiration and stories from Charles Hunter and her observations of the audiences. The novel and musical dramatize timeless themes of racial injustice, tragic romance, gambling and small town values.

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Moonshine Runner Pardoned: Last American Hero Junior Johnson

Junior Johnson’s racing helmet and driver of the year plaque. Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

Junior Johnson’s racing helmet and driver of the year plaque.
Image from the N.C. Museum of History.

On December 26, 1985, Robert Glen “Junior” Johnson received a full and unconditional pardon from President Ronald Reagan for his 1956 conviction in federal court for moonshining. Young Johnson was caught firing up his father’s still and became entangled in a barbed wire fence while trying to escape. The conviction put Johnson on a forced 11-month, three-day hiatus from his other career as a rising NASCAR star.

Johnson, like many early NASCAR drivers, got his first high-speed driving experience in a souped-up automobile loaded with illegal white liquor. He was a natural as a driver and always made it a point of pride that the revenuers never caught him on the highway. He parlayed his experience on the back roads of North Carolina into one of the most successful careers in NASCAR history.

When Johnson retired as a driver in 1966, he became one of the most successful crew chiefs and owners in the sport’s history. He was also a thriving and respected businessman in Wilkes County, having made lucrative investments in real estate, livestock and meat processing. Junior Johnson was in the first group of five inductees into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.

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Ava Gardner Born

h-122-aOn December 24, 1922, Ava Garnder was born in Grabtown, a small farming community near Smithfield in Johnston County.  Gardner moved around North Carolina as a child, but eventually graduated high school in Wilson County and began a program in secretarial studies at what is now Barton College.


A cut-out book featuring Ava Gardner, now in the collection of the N.C. Museum of History

Discovered by chance after her brother-in-law posted a picture of her in the window of his New York City studio, Gardner was offered a contract with MGM Studios. Since her mother would not allow her to head to Hollywood alone, both Garner and her sister moved to the west coast in 1941.

Appearing in mostly minor and silent parts during the first five years of her career, Gardner’s profile was raised significantly after her 1946 performances in Whistle Stop and The Killers. Gardner went on to make at least 55 movies, including On the Beach (1959), The Night of the Iguana (1964) and Earthquake (1974). She was also known for her marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra.

Gardner came back to Johnston and Wilson Counties often throughout her life to visit family and friends, though she died while living abroad in 1990. The Ava Gardner Museum and Festival, both in Smithfield, honor her.

For more on North Carolina’s film industry, check out the article on film-making on NCpedia.

Harper House in Hickory an Architectural Gem


On December 21, 2000, descendants of the Harper family arranged for the acquisition of the 1887 Queen Anne-style Shuler-Harper House in Hickory by the Catawba County Historical Association in order to ensure its future preservation and to serve as a museum and cultural center for the community. Following a successful fundraising effort, the house was fully restored. The restoration highlighted its picturesque and highly decorative exterior design and exquisite interior finishes.

The house was built for local banker David Webster Shuler, and would ultimately be used by six other families, including three generations of the Harper family. Owner of the Harper Motor Company, Finley Gwyn Harper Sr. purchased the house in 1923 and through the years family members valued and preserved the residence’s impressive architectural design.

The Shuler-Harper House stands out as one of the state’s finest Queen Anne-style houses with its fanciful exterior walls, round corner tower, multi-gabled roofline and inviting wraparound porches. The interior features latticework archways, richly hand worked mantels, paneled wainscoting, stained glass, parquet floors and an ornate staircase.

Check out the State Historic Preservation Office website and Facebook page for more information on our state’s rich preservation legacy.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Rehearsal Speech in Rocky Mount

An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks in Durham in 1958 from the State Archives

An image of Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks in Durham in 1958
from the State Archives

On November 27, 1962, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a speech in Rocky Mount. Before a crowd of nearly 2,000 in the gymnasium at Booker T. Washington High School, King used a number of expressions that made their way into his landmark “I Have a Dream” address at the Lincoln Memorial, which was part of the March on Washington in August 1963.

Near the close he built toward these lines: “I have a dream that one day right here in Rocky Mount, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will meet at the table of brotherhood, knowing that one God brought man to the face of the Earth. I have a dream tonight that one day my little daughter and my two sons will grow up in a world not conscious of the color of their skin, but only conscious of the fact that they are members of the human race. . . .”

Clayborne Carson, editor of the King Papers, notes that while this was not the first use of the “I have a dream” phrase, it “appears to be an important new rhetorical formulation.” By the spring and summer of 1963 the words were among the most frequent of King’s refrains.

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Raleigh Register, North Carolina’s First Daily Paper

On November 19, 1850, the Raleigh Register became North Carolina’s first newspaper to be published daily. The Register traces its roots

A photograph of a portrait of Joseph Gales Senior. Image courtesy the State Archives of North Carolina.

A photograph of a portrait of Joseph Gales Senior. Image courtesy the State Archives of North Carolina.

to 1799 when it was founded by English immigrant Joseph Gales, who had already successfully published several newspapers in England. Gales ran the paper until his retirement in 1833.  Under his leadership it was one of the major publications in the state and was widely regarded as the leading political voice for the Jeffersonian Repulicanism.

Gales started publishing the paper semiweekly only when the General Assembly was in session, but eventually settled upon weekly publication. He brought his son, Weston, in as a partner, and Weston would eventually go on to be the paper’s publisher.

It became a daily under Seaton Gales, grandson of the founder, who enlarged the paper’s operation and added a telegraph service. His efforts, though, soon proved unsuccessful and by January 1851, the Register had stopped publishing each day. Gales tried to revive paper by retrofitting its offices with the latest technology, but it was sold at public auction by 1856.

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