New Book! -- Whispers of the Long Departed: Untold History of Southern Craven County
Photo: Tom Boné
Eddie Ellis stands in front of a branch of Slocum Creek that once served as a water source for steam locomotives. The railroad trestle he is leaning on is less than a quarter of a mile from the intersection of Lake Road and Church Road and the historic Trader Store
Eddie Ellis has been sifting through haystacks and coming up with needles for nearly 40 years.
The needles are actually little nuggets of historical information, buried in archives across the country.
Ellis has found the needles that point to a small place in eastern North Carolina called Havelock.
It’s not a small place now, said Ellis during a recent walk along a section of railroad track that was once a hub of activity.
That spot along the track, now grown over by trees and shrubs, was a favorite hangout for Ellis and his friends when they were kids growing up in Havelock.
Often called “the fort,” it was in fact the site of a Union blockhouse near a railroad trestle that once was the stopping place for trains seeking water from nearby Slocum Creek.
That was during the Civil War, which Ellis calls, “the single most significant historical event that affected Havelock.”
“It uprooted everybody,” he said. “Farms were destroyed, the nature of slave labor changed, people were impoverished and they died. The war was the single most traumatic event that happened here, but it was only the beginning.”
The war also served as the advent of a new era in naval technology, said Ellis — an era that signaled the end of a thriving industry and practically chased off most of the founding families whose names are still part of local geographic landmarks.
With that war as a centerpiece, Ellis has woven a story about Havelock that has never been told in one sitting.
He spent 40 years gathering information, then a concentrated four months earlier this year putting the finishing touches on his first book, “In This Small Place: Amazing Tales of the First 300 Years of Havelock and Craven County, North Carolina.”
Standing on the trestle last week, he pointed north, south east and west — and with each point of the finger, he had a story to tell.
His conversational tone, honed by years as a reporter and eventual founder and publisher of the Havelock News, carries through in his book, which he describes as a historical project presented in an informal manner.
The quick visit to the railroad trestle pales in comparison to the many days he spent slogging through thickets and weeds in search of nearly forgotten graveyards, or the countless hours he spent spinning the wheels of microfilm machines in some of the nation’s most prestigious archives.
His searches were often met with dead ends, yet, he has found an ample share of what he calls his “ah-ha” moments.”
“That’s when you are going through reel after reel of microfilm,” Ellis said. “You sit and stare until you are about to go blind, and all of a sudden there it is, a mention of Slocum Creek, or Havelock, another piece of the puzzle.”
Ellis has found a treasure trove of puzzle pieces, and in his book, he has found a way to present them that he readily admits “may seem out of order, until you put it all together.”
Ellis was officially named Havelock historian by the city board of commissioners in 1984. The city provided him with a black metal filing cabinet and he’s been filling that cabinet, his household and office with the vital elements of his book ever since.
His dogged determination unearthed some major “ah-ha” moments along the way.
He discovered a rare Civil War journal at the University of Michigan penned by a Union soldier who landed at Slocum Creek in 1862. He had it transcribed and is now the first to publish some of Levi Kent’s descriptions of the area.
The Kent journal was a major find, unlike the majority of the other pieces of information. Those pieces took longer to find and while valuable to the scope of the project, often provided the least narratives.
“Sometimes a single sentence in the book has information in it that took weeks to gather,” he said.
“It’s about our neck of the woods,” he said. “As much history has happened here as in any place in the world. Families, businessmen and farmers have been living here since the late 1690s. The earliest settler was here in 1702, before the founding of New Bern. All of that history, in this small place, was a story worth telling.”
The passion for history, especially Havelock history is genetic, he says.
“I got it from my father and uncles,” he said. “I even see it in my children. It was the subject I loved most in school. History is everywhere, and I knew at an early age that Havelock had a history that goes back much farther than the establishment of (Marine Corps Air Station) Cherry Point.”
Knowing it was one thing, proving it was another.
Ellis found his proof in a variety of haystacks, including the long forgotten cemeteries, Craven County deed searches and in collections of historical archives scattered across the country.
In the process, he has become an authority on the city’s namesake, British general Sir Henry Havelock, who never set foot in this country.
He describes how the town came to join at least six others across the world to be named after this general, and what was going on at the time.
Sir Henry served as Ellis’s launching point for the book.
He still recalls the day he walked into the former public library building on Miller Boulevard looking for information on the general.
“They had no books about him,” he said.
“So, I started looking.”
He hasn’t stopped looking ever since. After hanging up his Havelock News publisher’s hat in 1993 to pursue his current real estate development work with his wife Veronica, he kept collecting and eventually took the plunge into publishing his first book.
“I knew I had all this material, and at one point I realized that in all this time, I had never looked at it all as one single story.”
He dug into the material and finally sat down at his keyboard to begin work on the first of many drafts.
“The most amazing thing was once I started typing, it flowed. I wrote 90 percent of the book out of my head, and then went to the files to confirm things. I found that because this was the first time I looked at all this material as a whole, I was finding connections I had never made before. Writing the book was a joy.”
“The book” is the title his final product carried until halfway through the project.
At a certain point, he had his own personal “ah-ha” moment as he realized he was writing about a small place that had a place in world history — hence the title of his book.
The book about Havelock’s history eventually came full circle for Ellis, who deftly fits the pieces of local history into world and national events.
As he weaves his story, sometimes jumping from one century to another, he helps the reader put together the puzzle pieces he’s been collecting for most of his life.
Those pieces include descriptions of Havelock’s heyday, when it had four general stores, one of them a full two stories, well before the Trader Store was built.
He sheds light on the fate of the original Native Americans who lost their claim to the area when the settlers arrived. He also manages to shake the misconception that the Marine Corps Air Station was the starting point for the current population.
There was a time, says Ellis, “in this small place,” when the industrial world’s dependence on timber, pine tar and turpentine made this area the equivalent of modern Saudi Arabia, substituting the end products from Long Leaf pine for oil.
When wooden ships lost ground to the iron monsters that replaced them, the region was economically devastated.
Ellis traces that devastation, and touches on the next big enterprise, moonshining.
Havelock was a mecca for moonshining before, during and even after Prohibition, says Ellis, who cautiously avoids using real names along the way.
Ironically, the moonshiners eventually lost their battles to stay ahead of the “revenuers” with the help of helicopters from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, who carefully called their aerial searches for stills a part of their “training exercises.”
With the book completed, Ellis found a publisher prepared to provide the technical quality and distribution he hoped for, which includes a listing on Amazon.com.
He’s been checking up on sales and smiles when he sees his standing on the charts.
“The last time I checked, the new Harry Potter book was number one, and I’m at 223,200,” he said. “So it looks like I need some help here.”
He knows his book won’t hit the top ten list, but says that wasn’t his goal in the first place.
Standing on the railroad trestle looking deep into the woods where, at one time, Union soldiers prepared for a Confederate attack, he takes comfort in knowing those soldiers, and the thousands of other men women and children who helped shape Havelock are not forgotten.
His book, which he confides will soon have a sequel, is just a primer.
“I think, once and for all, that it will prove Havelock is as historically relevant as any other place in the world,” he said.