Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Oldest Living Confederate Chaplain Tells All?

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

Oldest Living Confederate Chaplain Tells All?

Article excerpt

Or, James B. Avirett and the Rise and Fall of the Rich Lands

Recently I toured the former site of the Rich Lands in the old piney woods of Onslow County, North Carolina. The Rich Lands had been one of the great plantations in the naval stores industry of the Old South. John Avirett and more than 125 slaves built a kingdom out of the long-leaf pine's resinous gum, producing rivers of turpentine, tar, pitch, and rosin whose swelling tides literally carried sailing vessels to every continent on earth. Succeeded long ago by corporate timberlands and loblolly thickets, the Rich Lands once sprawled across more than 22,000 acres just southeast of what is now the small farm town of Richlands, fourteen miles from the Atlantic coast.

With the help of Dennis Jones, a local historian and educator, I went in search of the Rich Lands' former glory. Poking around pine woods, we found circular imprints of old tar pits still scarring the earth. Dennis showed me a sticky layer of rosin residue by the banks of Catherine's Lake, the former site of Avirett's turpentine distilleries. He also pointed out an old rice-field dam and, along the banks of the New River, a weary sun-baked marl bed, once a source of lime for the plantation's fields. A half-chiseled grindstone protruded from the marl, the labor of extricating it from the rock interrupted at least 140 years ago. Toward dusk Dennis led me to where Alum Spring rises out of a gaping limestone rift. Now in deep forest, the spring used to be a popular picnic spot for some of the wealthiest planters in North Carolina. Finally, out by the Jacksonville highway, Dennis revealed an old brick cistern that is the last trace of the Rich Lands manor house. Nearby we found the Avirett family cemetery: a few graves within a crumbling brick wall tangled in trumpet vine. Across the road I could barely make out the low spot where the Rich Lands slaves are said to have buried their dead.

Dennis and I only recognized most of these landmarks because James Battle Avirett, John Avirett's son, wrote an extraordinary memoir of growing up at the Rich Lands. Published in 1901, The Old Plantation: How We Lived in Great House and Cabin Before the Warlong ago faded into obscurity, but it is an unparalleled account of North Carolina's turpentine boom days--the days that gave the state's citizens the name "Tar Heels." Indeed, there is no better account of plantation life in the piney woods of the antebellum South. After reading Avirett's memoir, you can practically see the Rich Lands as it was 150 years ago: the fine manor house, the slave quarters, the distilleries, the picnics at Alum Spring, and the great piney woods itself. No aspect of Rich Lands life or turpentining seems to have escaped him.

Yet James Avirett did not tell all. When I explored the Rich Lands not so long ago, I discovered that behind The Old Plantation is an untold saga, a mystery far more intriguing than the book itself. In reality, Avirett's flattering portrait of the Rich Lands conceals a forgotten tale of ecological ruin and personal tragedy. His memoir provides a wealth of raw material for the study of turpentine plantation life and piney woods culture in the antebellum South. It is a portrait of the Rich Lands so detailed, so elaborated with specific names, places, and incidents, and as insightful about slaves as their masters, that it cannot help but raise a host of intriguing issues about plantation life, material culture, daily work routines, the annual rhythms of labor, slave culture, and the society and outlook of the planter class. But it is, ultimately, something even far more interesting: a story of nostalgia and deceit that goes to the heart of plantation slavery's impact on the southern landscape and how we remember the Old South today.


The long-leaf pine, Pinus palustris, once defined the American South as distinctively as the tall-grass prairie set apart the Great Plains. …

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