This is the first in a series of portraits celebrating everyday life in Columbus County’s communities.
If a traveler were going east in the morning, he might be blinded by the rising sun and miss the sign by the side of U.S. 74-76 that says “Byrdville.” There is only one sign marking the site of Byrdville and it faces the westbound lane. The traveler might be distracted by the folks unloading refuse at the recycling site as he takes that road to the south, a turn by the refuse site where there was once a train stop and a post office and on down the paved country road marked “Byrdville-Freeman Rd,” although it is a circuitous route to Freeman. It is a familiar scene for anybody who grew up in this part of eastern North Carolina: green pastures with old barns — some still showing the ravages of storms, their tin roofs hanging precariously, reflecting the morning light.
There are newer barns, too, and sturdy new homes just past a pasture with a mobile home that sits in the curve of the pasture fence.
Byrdville got its name from Mr. Christianbury Byrd ,who was the postmaster at the old Byrdville post office in 1866. For whatever reason, when Byrd died the post office went out of business for a while, then in 1877 it started back up again with Francis Creech, and then another Byrd, Mittie Byrd, took over in 1912 but it only lasted a couple of years until the Bolton post office took over delivery of the mail to Byrdville residents.
Lot of folks out this way are involved in the trucking business. The big rigs sit beside the dwellings. Some of the giant engines are idling like work horses poised to take to the road. Some will be gone and back before dark after a day hauling logs; others won’t be back for several days hauling goods to distant destinations.
The summer sun is creeping slowly to the top of the pine trees along the road, casting long shadows that fold like gloved fingers pulling the road closer to the sunrise as if it was protecting the road from another day. Just a mile or two down that road, a man and a boy are working on a truck. The truck and other equipment are parked under a large metal building and beside it is a large brick home.
Phil Grice is a trucker. He hauls salt every day from Wilmington to Hamlet, where it is used in a process to make fumigants for farming and other products as well.
The young assistant, named Carter Bigford, lives just down the road. “Thinks he’s family,” says Phil with a smile. The two continue working as the visitor inquires about the status of Byrdville. “Yep, this is home,” says Phil. “Raised right down there in that building you can see from here,” he says pointing toward a white frame building just a short distance north of his house. “That used to be the old Byrdville school, but my family made it into a house and all my family was raised there,” he added.
“Lived here all my life. Not much changes. The biggest change has been getting paved roads. I’m 64 years old and I remember when Mr. Dowless got killed when he ran his ‘54 Ford into the bridge railing right after the road was paved. We weren’t used to being able to go fast on these roads.
“Started working at the old Amoco station when I was a boy. Got interested in trucks and got into this business,” he explained.
When asked if he was an apprentice trucker, Carter said, “No, going to get more education first, then I’ll figure it out.”
“Thankful for my life here,” said Phil. “Family has been here for generations. Got a good wife. Got a farm, too. Good neighbors. Got another house down at the beach we go to ‘bout every week-end. Lots of churches around here: Red Hill Pentecostal, Cheerful Hope Baptist, Livingston Baptist, some others, but since we’re at the beach that’s where we go.” Without skipping a beat he added, “Well, listen. I’d love to talk some more but we got to get this job done. Come back and see me again, though, and we’ll talk some more.”
A short distance past Phil’s place are more farms. A pond with several goats grazing its edge shines in the morning sun now pushing its summer heat, causing a little mist to rise from the water that had been cooled by the night.
There are some small trees blown down on the side of the road, remnants of the previous night’s storm. Lena Dale Road narrows from Byrdville Road onto a dirt road with no name. The dirt road is surprisingly dry given the recent storm. A lone turkey ventures out of the woods into the path of a car and runs ahead then wisely runs back into the woods. Finding himself on a logging road, the wary traveler doesn’t go on to private land without permission, so he turns around and heads back toward Byrdville.
The road now turns east as it goes past barren fields, some newly plowed and some grown up in weeds. There are also fields of tall corn and oats. Newly built homes and several mobile homes are nestled between the fields in egalitarian tranquility.
On past Sam’s Creek there is a community cemetery on the right side of the road just before it gets back to 74-76 at Freeman. It may have been a family cemetery that became a community cemetery. It is well-kept, the grass recently mowed and fresh flowers and artificial flowers on some of the graves. There are familiar names on the tombstones: Alford, Little, Roberts, Connelly, Mintz, old names of families that have lived here for centuries along with some more recent residents. An American flag hangs limply atop a tall pole in the midday sun even as several smaller flags ripple softly over the graves of military veterans buried there.
There is one large tombstone with an epitaph noting that the body of the person placed there was named Rufus Alford. He was killed in France on September 18, 1918. The people of Byrdville and Freeman have been serving their country for a long time. If Rufus Alford or any of the others were to come back today, some things would have changed, some would not. But it would still be home.