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Bath Tricentennial Collection

In 2005 Bath, North Carolina, celebrated three-hundred years since its incorporation. It is interesting to note how the town has marked its own history over the years. Little was done to preserve Bath's colonial past until the early twentieth century. While visitors would come to see the old town of Bath, they found interesting historic structures in varying states of disrepair. After the publication of a 1905 souvenir calendar in honor of Bath's 200th anniversary, people began to think about preserving the town's history. Between 1905 and 1955, plans were floated for restoring several of the town's historic structures, and work began on restoring St. Thomas Episcopal Church (1734-35), the oldest church in North Carolina. However, it wasn't until after the highly successful—even if last minute—celebration of Bath's 250th anniversary in 1955 that restoration began in earnest. By the early 1960s, Bath had opened the Palmer-Marsh and Bonner houses to the public and soon these and other structures became the Historic Bath State Historic Site. Bath's celebration of its past continued by highlighting its pirate connections when, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the outdoor drama Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag was produced. The documents presented here illustrate these changing ideas about preserving Bath's colonial history over the past century and more.

Read More About the Bath Tricentennial Digital Exhibit

The celebration of Bath's Tricentennial has an elephant in the room that no one is talking about. In truth, the colonial General Assembly of North Carolina voted to incorporate Bath on March 8 of 1705/6—that is, 1705 by the dating method of the time, when the new year for Great Britain and its colonies began on March 25th, but 1706 by our presenting method of marking dates. In many ways, this flexibility of dates is much like the marking of Bath's colonial history over the past century. The town's past is a mixture of fact and legend, both of which only in the past century have been celebrated and preserved.

Bath’s founders began with a great deal of hope. There was optimism not only among the three men who bought the land the town sits on and became the its first commissioners—John Lawson, Joel Martin, and Simon Alderson. The town's settlers throughout the eighteenth century were optimistic about its future. Unfortunately, Bath Creek never became the major port that these early settlers hoped it would be, and by the end of the eighteenth century, the newer town of Washington, further up the Pamlico River, had become the area's center of commerce.

The first century of Bath’s existence mixed the profane with the sacred. Among the town’s legendary residents was Edward Teach, the pirate known as Blackbeard, who lived in Bath on and off during the year 1718. At the same time, Bath in its early days was the location of North Carolina’s first public library, and St. Thomas Church, built between October of 1734 and May of 1735, is the oldest church in North Carolina. In 1739 and again in 1747, itinerant evangelist the Reverend George Whitefield preached in Bath, and he passed through the town, though without preaching, in the 1760s. From these visits grew the legend of Whitefield’s curse. The legend goes that Whitefield, disappointed with the results of his evangelization, rode away saying that the Bible told that if somewhere the people won’t listen to the word of God, a preacher is to shake the dust of the town off his feet and the town will be cursed. The eighteenth-century legend is one explanation of Bath’s failure to become a thriving commercial center.

During the nineteenth century, many of Bath's historic structures fell into greater and greater states of disrepair. On the one hand, people visiting the 1751 Palmer-Marsh house frequently recorded with amazement that its double chimney with windows built in was seventeen-feet wide. On the other hand, sightseers to St. Thomas Episcopal Church took many of its decorative floor tiles as souvenirs, and the church yard was overgrown. Unconsciously adding to the theme of decay, visitors often recorded the epithets on graves found not only in the St. Thomas churchyard, but in family burial plots, such as that behind the Palmer-Marsh house.

Inadvertently, a 1905 calendar to commemorate Bath's 250th anniversary, recorded both Bath's history and its decline. The few pictures of Bath itself showed a town whose day had passed; much of the rest of the calendar was filled with images of Beaufort County's progress, almost all of which was portrayed as being in Washington. Perhaps in response to the calendar, people began to talk about restoring old Bath. Progress was slow. A monument to Bath's colonial history was dedicated in 1924, and by 1939, a new organization, the Bath Restoration Commission, had helped stabilize and repair St. Thomas Church. As this work went on, at least one local resident decided to memorialize Bath in writing. Ada Satterthwaite Bragg published the pamphlet-sized collection of poems Forget-Me-Nots of Bath, N. C. The poems are mostly based on area history and present Bath as a place of mixed religious goodness and sin.

However, the celebration of Bath's 250th anniversary in 1955 served as the impetus to begin serious work on historic preservation. What is fascinating is how quickly the celebration came together. In May of 1955, the town of Bath began to look at how it might celebrate its founding. In July, the State of North Carolina sent letters to various people inviting them to be members of the Bath Commission in order to develop plans for the state’s participation in the town’s anniversary events. By early October, just three months later, a major celebration took place, highlighted by the pageant Queen Anne’s Bell, with such dignitaries as Governor and Mrs. Luther Hodges, North Carolina Secretary of State William Blount Rodman, novelist Inglis Fletcher, and Secretary of the North Carolina Historical Commission C. C. Crittenden all taking roles.

By 1958, the Beaufort County Historical Society had bought the Palmer-Marsh house with plans to restore the building. The Beaufort County Historical Society had been formed in 1955 by Edmund H. Harding, who had also been the main organizer of the 1955 celebrations. In 1959, North Carolina established the Historic Bath Commission with Harding as its chair. The work of the local and state groups was so successful that in 1962, the Palmer-Marsh and Bonner houses were open to the public. In 1963, the North Carolina General Assembly created the Historic Bath State Historic Site to be able to give continuing support to restoring, interpreting, and maintaining colonial Bath.

As Bath’s 300th anniversary approached, the legends of Bath continued to be part of the town’s commemoration of its past. The outdoor drama Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag, written and directed by Stuart Aaronson, was produced between 1977 and 1986. Plans are underway to revive the production for this summer in honor of the tricentennial. As the town of Bath turns 300, it is interesting to see the types of celebrations and commemorations that are planned and to think about what these say concerning Bath’s past how we continue to connect to that history.

For Further Reading

Cooper, Francis Hodges. Some Colonial History of Beaufort County North Carolina. James Sprunt Historical Publications 14.2. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1916. [One of the earliest histories of the area, focusing mainly on the colonial period. Available online at https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/16949

Paschal, Jr., Herbert R. A History of Colonial Bath. Raleigh, NC: Edwards & Broughton Company, 1955. [Published by The Committee On The Two Hundred And Fiftieth Anniversary of Bath, this was the standard history of the town until the recent publication of Alan D. Watson’s Bath: The First Town in North Carolina. Available online https://digital.lib.ecu.edu/16835

Watson, Alan D. Bath: The First Town in North Carolina. With Eva C. (Bea) Latham and Patricia M. Samford. Raleigh: North Carolina Office of Archives and History, 2005. [The most recent history of the town, including an epilogue on "The Second and Third Centuries" of Bath.]

Online Resources:

The Bath Tricentennial Celebration: 1705-2005. http://www.historicbathnc.com/. [The official website of the events to be held from March 8, 2005, to March 8, 2006, celebrating Bath’s 300th anniversary.]

Historic Bath. http://www.ah.dcr.state.nc.us/sections/hs/bath/bath.htm. [The North Carolina State Historic Sites pages on the Historic Bath site; includes history and legends of the town as well as visitor information.]

Historic Bath. http://circanceast.beaufortccc.edu/Bath/bath.htm. [Part of the CIRCA NC East website . Features pictures of Bath as well as several unpublished reports from the Historic Sites Section of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History on the town, Edmund H. Harding, and on the surviving historic structures in Bath.]

Ormond Amphitheatre: The Bath Outdoor Drama. http://www.ormondamphitheatre.com/. [Home to the 2005 production of Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag.]