Additional Perspective on the Historical and Cultural Significance of William B. Umstead State Park and the Odd Fellows Tract
Last week, I reviewed the ongoing struggle over the Odd Fellows tract – 105 acres of publicly owned, forested habitat, which directly borders Old Reedy Creek Road in William B. Umstead State Park. The years-long struggle pits the RDU Airport Authority (RDUAA) and Wake Stone Corporation against preservation groups, adjacent landowners, and private citizens determined to save this forested ecosystem from an ugly fate. The purpose of this installment is not to rehash those points, which can be found here, but to further delve into the historical and cultural significance of the Odd Fellows tract, as well as Umstead State Park, which is at great risk from the proposed new quarry.
For most who have biked, hiked or run through the jewel that is Umstead State Park, the history of this land may not be front of mind. It is easy to become lost in that endorphin fueled reverie common to those of us who calibrate the miles via landmarks just as easily as through our Garmins. A bend in the trail here, water fountain there, a lake, an old family cemetery, a hill… good Lord, those hills. We know this park intimately, at least the frequently traveled parts. But not everyone is privy to the deep history of the place. The more observant visitors among us might glimpse an occasional stone chimney just off the trail through winter-bare trees, standing sentry over a long-abandoned home site. These glimpses hint at the history, but there is so much more than meets the eye.
A farming community transformed
The area now encompassesing Umstead State Park, was populated as early as 1800, as small farms sprung up in the area around Crabtree Creek in northwestern Wake County. By 1810, Anderson Page, an early entrepreneur and industrialist established a water-powered mill on Crabtree Creek, known first as Page’s Mill, then Company Mill. Other mills populated the area, including the George Lynn Mill on Sycamore Creek (1871), and a later mill on Reedy Creek.
Wake County residents traveled from miles around along Old Middle Hillsboro Road – an early precursor to present-day Highway 70 – then south along Mill Road to Crabtree Creek to ground corn and catch up on local gossip. The Company Mill was in operation until the 1920’s and then largely washed away during a great flood in the 1930’s. Portions of a dam wall built at the mill site are still visible along the southern banks of Crabtree Creek within the park.
As farms populated the area, forests of oak and pine were largely cleared for fields. Early farming was marginally successful, but poor cultivation practices led to soil depletion and erosion. Depression-era farmers made futile attempts to grow cotton in the worn-out soil around Crabtree Creek, but by the early 1930’s, landowners in the grip of financial ruin were bought out under the Resettlement Administration (RA), a federal agency created under the New Deal which relocated struggling urban and rural families to communities planned by the federal government. Through that process, in 1934 federal and state agencies combined to purchase 5,000 acres of sub-marginal land to develop a recreation area. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Works Progress Administration (WPA) work crews, largely staffed by North Carolinians, built facilities including Camp Sycamore on Sycamore Lake, and other campsites.
By 1943, with World War II underway and New Deal programs winding down, the State of North Carolina purchased this area, known as Crabtree Creek Recreation Area, for $1. The area was later named Crabtree Creek State Park.
The legacy of Jim Crow
Crabtree Creek State Park was segregated from the outset, with Camp Whispering Pines designated for African Americans on a pond at Reedy Creek. By 1950, one thousand acres of Crabtree Creek State Park was designated for use by African Americans, and named Reedy Creek State Park. The white entrance to Crabtree Creek was located off of Highway 70 in the north, while the black entrance to Reedy Creek was located to the south, at the terminus of Cary’s Harrison Avenue.
The two parks were separated by the meandering Crabtree Creek which bisects the park roughly west to east. While this fixed boundary demarcated the space, fording at any number of points could easily breach the boundary. To make the separation more durable, stands of forest were often employed. Writing about improvements to the parks in 1950, the Raleigh News & Observer provided a perverse note of reassurance to white parents that a large forested buffer would separate the white and African American youth camps, stating that the two camps would be more than a mile apart at the Crabtree Creek dividing line.
Reedy Creek State Park was one of just two facilities operated by the state park system designated for African American use, the other being Jones Lake State Park in Bladen County, southeast of Fayetteville. A third park, Hammocks Beach State Park was planned for minority use after it was donated to the state in 1961 by an association of African American teachers, however the park opened to all people following the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In 1955, Crabtree Creek State Park was renamed for late Governor William B. Umstead, an advocate of environmentally friendly legislation who had recently died in office. In 1966, the two state parks were joined under the name William B. Umstead State Park, and both sections opened to all people. To this day, there is no road connecting the former white entrance at Highway 70, and the former black entrance at Harrison Avenue – a subtle reminder of the dark history of Jim Crow.
Odd Fellows and Foxcroft Lake
Over the decades, the Odd Fellows tract and other forested lands around the borders of Umstead have been used much like the park itself, for recreation and enjoyment of the outdoors. The Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows purchased their tract of land in 1958 and made it available to local Boy Scout troops for monthly meetings and overnight camps along the shores of Foxcroft Lake.
As Raleigh evolved from a sleepy Southern capital to a thriving metropolitan city, land use and availability became a greater concern. The Research Triangle, which was founded in 1959 and named for the three anchoring research institutions, NC State University in Raleigh, the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill and Duke University in Durham. This venture, led by politicians, university officials and business leaders, sought to transform the economy of the Piedmont region away from the traditional, yet fading industries of textiles and farming, and toward a new focus on technological innovation and development. By the mid 1960’s, these efforts picked up steam, jobs followed, and the population increased at a historic rate.
Sensing the need to secure bordering properties against the threat of incompatible industrial encroachment, North Carolina State Parks published a Master Plan for Umstead State Park in 1974. The plan contained a land acquisition strategy, which called for obtaining 916 additional acres of land in three phases along the borders of the park. The plan also called for deleting 186 acres along Turkey Creek, on the east side of Ebenezer Church Road, roughly the location of the Hamptons at Umstead neighborhood today. The net total of 730 acres proposed for acquisition included land between Umstead and I-40 where the current Wake Stone quarry sits, and the Odd Fellows tract immediately to the west.
The plan noted that most of the proposed lands need not be acquired if legally binding assurances could be made by landowners guaranteeing existing land uses would remain indefinitely. Such assurances could be secured by scenic easements that would exclude land uses incompatible with the park, including high-density residential, commercial or industrial development, or timber clear-cutting.
During this time, an expanding RDU Airport just to the west of Umstead also sought to secure its borders and acquire land for future expansion. Just two years after the publication of the Umstead Master Plan, the Fraternal Order of Odd Fellows and other landowners sold their properties along the southern border of Umstead to the four municipalities – the cities of Raleigh and Durham, and the counties of Wake and Durham. The sales were coerced, as the municipalities sought to secure land for use by the RDU Airport Authority. The landowners chose to sell in order to avoid loss of the property by eminent domain.
Even after the forced sale of Odd Fellows in 1976, the tract remained a de facto extension of Umstead, with continued use by local Boy Scout troops. With the rise of mountain biking in the 1990s and 00’s, trails were developed along this tract as well as the adjacent “286” tract. These uses were compatible with a state park, and provided enhanced access to trails and outdoor activities for Triangle residents.
East Coast Greenway
The East Coast Greenway (ECG), an ambitious 3,000 mile hiking and biking route which connects hundreds of greenway and hiking trail systems from Maine to Florida, runs through Umstead State Park along the Reedy Creek Trail, and along Old Reedy Creek Road south of the park. In a 2017 study of the economic impact of the ECG on the area, it was estimated that the Triangle region enjoys $90 million annual in total benefits from gains in health, the environment, transportation and enhanced access. The ECG runs literally within yards of the proposed new Wake Stone quarry.
If Wake Stone is approved for a new quarry pit, access to the ECG and Umstead along Old Reedy Creek Road would effectively be cut off for an extended period of time, if not permanently. 500 dump trucks a day would roll along that road while the tract is deforested, until Wake Stone’s proposed bridge is completed over Crabtree Creek. Given the noise, the danger of truck traffic, the threat of lung disorders from airborne particulate matter, and the peril of fly rock generated from such a quarry, would the ECG and it’s significant economic impact be enhanced or diminished by a new quarry?
An opportunity to get things right
The leaders of our local municipalities and regulatory bodies have a unique and fleeting opportunity to protect public land for the enjoyment of current and future generations of Triangle residents, property owners and taxpayers. They have an opportunity to enhance North Carolina’s most visited state park, and bolster the Triangle’s reputation as a legitimate destination for hiking, biking and all manner of outdoor activities.
They have an opportunity to honor generations of farming families who called this land home as far back as the early 1800’s. To memorialize the generations of African American residents who found solace in Reedy Creek State Park during the dark chapter of Jim Crow. And to commemorate the generations of Boy Scouts who developed skills, self confidence and character along the shores of Foxcroft Lake. It is a rare opportunity to protect an asset which brings tens of millions of dollars in annual benefits to this region.
This moment is much larger than the 105 acres in question. This moment will define who we are and what we value as a community, and as a society. We have an opportunity to get things right, and the choice between right and wrong has rarely been more evident.
Please contact your local city and county representatives, your legislators, Congressmen, the Governor, and members of the RDUAA and NCDEQ and let your voices be heard. Because on this Independence Day, we the people have an opportunity too.
For additional reading on the history of Umstead:
- Stories In Stone by Tom Weber: A wonderful, comprehensive history of the land and people from the farming community where Umstead State Park now sits, as well as detailed maps and descriptions of trails and ruins within the park.
- A fascinating history can be found in the 1995 application for inclusion of Umstead State Park on the National Register of Historical Places
- 1954 North Carolina State Parks brochure with a profile of Reedy Creek State Park (p. 27)
- 1974 William B. Umstead State Park Master Plan: Policy for land acquisition and map of proposed acquisitions (p. 30-31)