Today, May 18th, 2022 is the 75th anniversary of the very first race at the old North Wilkesboro Speedway. Back in 1947 that would have been a dirt track race featuring a collection of random souped-up cars that were purchased commercially, driven by all sorts of characters. It would have been a far cry from the sterility and order of today’s NASCAR.
As the plans for the revitalization of the old track continue, there’s been a flurry of activity this week, with NC governor Cooper speaking at the track yesterday and an open house today for people to take a last look at the old speedway before renovations begin.
I went today myself, not as a racing fan, but as a history fan, but I couldn’t help feel a tangible excitement among the people in attendance. I had assumed there might be a small group to turn out, but by the reckoning of a firefighter working the event I talked to, there were already between 5 and 600 people at 6PM and the track was going to be open until 8PM. It’s also worth nothing parking in the area they had marked off for the occasion had already begun to get crowded and there was a steady line of traffic coming down the narrow road that leads in.
In the grandstands and on the asphalt, there was a diverse crowd in attendance. Young, old, very old, very young, teenagers. Bits and pieces of stories of the “old days” were carried on the breeze from every direction, and talk of the future was not in short supply. As I drifted around taking pictures, I even bumped into a man who had driven all the way from Cincinnati to be in attendance, wearing a shirt from the last race he came to at the Speedway in 1996. A local EMT mentioned that he had briefly talked with a couple wo have driven from New York state to see the track again. Clearly the old raceway holds a special place in the hearts of many people, and I share their excitement that the speedway might soon rediscover it’s former life as a functioning venue and integral part of the community. Time will tell.
This small family farm began as a log cabin sometime in the mid to late 1800’s and has been altered and added onto from those early days all the way into the mid to late 1990’s when it was properly abandoned and it’s former residents built a new house and moved away. The long, previously well kept driveway is now brambles and brush and completely invisible from the paved road it once ran into and only appears as a darker green path on aerial photos. Fighting through the thorns at the edge of the tree line was a chore, but once under the canopy, there’s a generous ditch/shoulder I was able to follow that parallels the road all the way to the main part of the property. The drive comes right into the middle of the buildings, with a tractor/car shed on the left, the house on the right with some smaller buildings behind it, and a barn farther back behind the car shed away from the driveway. In order to give you, the reader, an idea how the property is laid out, I’m including something I have never tried before. A small video of the area and a crude map showing layout.
Based on my crude map, let’s take a tour. First, (2) the car/tractor shed.
Directly across from the shed is the house (1). It’s in very poor shape, with holes in the floor and walls. At one time it had power, but the poles and drop lines are no longer present, only the old dial electrical meter. For water, the pump house supplied well water, but the outhouse was in use for quite a while. When I entered the main room with the fireplace just off the front concrete porch, I spooked a mother Turkey Vulture who was nesting on an egg. I was not aware, but Turkey Vultures don’t build nests in trees and mostly keep their eggs in thickets or on the ground. Or in this case, in someone’s former living room corner. No furniture or artifacts remain inside the house.
The well/pump house (4). I don’t know what the box in front of the pump is. Perhaps for chickens? The side of the pump house has a concrete trough that extends from the inside to the outside, allowing water to be pumped for animals. Maybe the aforementioned chickens?
The barn (3) is in shambles now, but it must have been very nice in it’s day, with several doors and some interesting old style construction using grooved beams and floor joists. According to the property owner it was still standing a couple years ago but a heavy snow finally collapsed the roof.
The outhouse (6) is in good shape for it’s age, but is currently in danger of falling into the hole beneath it.
Because of thorns, the other shed (5) was impossible to get close to, but it had collapsed and there didn’t seem to be anything in it. Unfortunately I didn’t even get an exterior shot of that building. These last pictures represent various trash and bottle dumps scattered about the property. The largest collection of bottles was just behind the outhouse but there were numerous piles, as well as a pile of old tires (not pictured) and the remains of some sort of rock wall. Of note, I had permission and I attempted metal detecting where the ground was clear enough, but the only non-iron hits I found were bits and pieces of melted aluminum from what I think was a burn pile just off from the front of the house.
Being older and somewhat wiser you can look back at exploring indiscretions and see all the bad choices you’ve made and unnecessary risks you’ve taken. Today I want to give a few tips about minimizing risk. I believe these tips will be useful for old houses, industrial areas, and even rural hikes to distant forgotten spots.
First, one thing it took me years to really start to consider was the possibility of injury. Skulking around old buildings puts you in places where there are bad floors, sharp objects, and sometimes even falling debris to contend with. With that in mind, chance of injury is much higher urban exploring than it is sitting on your couch, and it’s a good idea to plan accordingly. The most important piece of safety gear you can and should always carry is going to be a first aid kit of some sort. And I don’t mean those plastic boxes of Band-Aids, sunburn cream, and Aspirin you get at Wal-Mart on the camping aisle. What I’m talking about is an actual dedicated trauma kit with the right kind of gauze, and a proper tourniquet. These are generally referred to as an Individual First Aid Kit or “IFAK”.
However, the real problem with these kits is that the average person does not know how to use the materials in them. Unless you come from a medical background like myself or have had training through a workplace or some sort of military or law enforcement setting, the average person is not going to know when, where, or how to use a tourniquet. With that in mind, it’s not enough to simply carry an IFAK, one has to know how to use it. This is where the Stop The Bleed Coalition comes in. STB is a coalition of orgs and individuals that are dedicated to teaching members of the public what to do in the event of an accident or situation that leads to traumatic bleeding. It allows you as a bystander to gain skills which could save someone’s life, and maybe even your own. This is accomplished through classes, both online an in person, such as the “Stop The Bleed” classes and American Red Cross FAST Training. These are simple classes that pretty much anyone can benefit from, and they make the IFAK you carry more than just cool gear you bought, but useful, possibly lifesaving equipment.
Regarding your choice of an IFAK, there are numerous possibilities. You can buy the components and make your own, you can buy them premade. But, what is important to remember is that lifesaving gear is not the category where you should be a cheapskate. Don’t buy Chinese tourniquets. Don’t buy those “survival kits” you see sold on knife websites. Buy something meant to be used and tested to be useable. It’s also helpful to tailor your kit to your trip. If you’re going in alone, an IFAK is a good starting point. If you’re going with a group, it’s not a bad idea to take more than the contents of a single kit. The fact that you’re carrying an IFAK also doesn’t mean you can’t carry extra gauze, dressing, or items that might be useful in the area you’re going to be, such as eye rinse. Determine your needs and then build your kit each time with the destination in mind.
Second, it is always a good idea to let someone know where you’re going to be. There were so many times when I started out exploring that I would wander off alone, into old factories where no one would guess I was going to be. If something had happened to me in one of those places (such as falling though a floor) that left me unable to move or to get out, there’s no telling when anyone would have ever found me.
With that in mind, tell someone you trust where you plan on going and about how long you plan to be there. If possible, check in with that person by text or call at set intervals. For example, let’s say your going to an old mill at 2PM, and you plan to be there until 4PM. Communicate that to your contact, and then maybe promise to check in at 3PM to let them know things are going OK, and then 4PM to let them know that you’re on the way out or maybe plan to stay a bit longer. If you’ve discovered the mill was larger than you thought and you’re going to spend some more time inside, maybe agree to either contact them again in half an hour or an hour, or when you leave, whichever comes first. Setting up these kinds of check-ins can alert your contact that something may be off. It may only be that you dropped your phone in a flooded basement and wrecked it, but it could also be that you passed out from heat exhaustion and are in danger of not waking up again. So when I say “someone you trust”, make sure it’s someone you trust with your life.
These are just two thoughts I wanted to put in writing today, but there are of course other things to consider when exploring, and other items you may need. Most of these will be common sense. Good shoes/boots. Durable clothes. Head protection if there is the possibility of overhead or falling debris. Eye protection in certain environments. A quality respirator in areas with asbestos and molds. Single gas oxygen monitors for caving and preferably a 4 gas monitor to really be safe.
There is also a plethora of information out there about safety when exploring from people who have been doing it even longer than me, don’t hesitate to consider it.
Time has a way of erasing things we used to think of as important. As the world becomes bigger, the size of human history and existence further obscures our knowledge of what once was. Today, we’ll try to push the shadows away ever so slightly to see what can still be known about a major local school.
The unincorporated community of Zephyr, NC sits just north of Elkin on the western end of Surry county. Today it is just a roughly defined stretch of road near Gum Orchard Baptist Church, having no stores, schools, or much of anything else save for farms. The Zephyr of the early 1900’s and even late 1930’s was something much different. It was home to a large brick school building, a store with a post office, and of course the aforementioned church. What’s more, the school was a hub for the local community, hosting plays, inoculation clinics, traveling performers, school board meetings, ceremonies, farmer’s meetings, concerts, and even a community fair. Zephyr school would be an important part of the lives of the local community for nearly half a century before the statewide drive to consolidate rural schools finally ended it’s life.
While I have been unable to find a starting date for the school, it is first mentioned in print around the turn of the century. After that first time, there is an absolute plethora of articles and clippings about the school all the way until the building is sold at auction in 1948. While I wont try to detail every point of it’s history, I am including many of the sources below this article in chronological order- these can tell the story of Zephyr better than I can by simply condensing down what I think is most important. I will however provide a basic history.
As I said before, Zephyr school comes into the record around the turn of the century, though I can find no details about when it was constructed. At the time of the first articles, the structure would likely have been a single wooden building akin to all the other local rural schools. Due to growth or the need for a community meeting place, that changes in 1928 when the county school system takes out a massive loan for “improvements” to the tune of $18,000, or about $300,000 in todays money. I believe this is the year the wooden structure is done away with and the 4,000 square foot brick building that the school will later be described as is built. It is likely the same year that a standalone auditorium is also constructed, as it is not mentioned prior to that year, but is mentioned several times afterwards. There is also another bit of evidence that may lend credence to this theory. The few photos I have been able to find of the school are from the Images of America book for Surry County. They are all class photos, and comparing the earliest (1923-1924) to the newest two (1927-1928), we notice the first group stands in front of a wooden structure, and then in the later photos, the building is brick.
This new building and auditorium would have greatly changed how the property was used. While it seems the school house had been a focal point for the community already, it would now become the place where everything happened. The auditorium was nice enough that even other schools were holding their graduations there. Despite the new buildings, the school and community would still only get 20 years of use out of them before consolidation came, and as with other rural schools, such as the previously documented Zion School, the building and property were auctioned off. It’s at this point that the written record ends or becomes too obscured for me to track. It’s also at this point I was able to continue the story via an oral source.
My source does not remember the year of the auction, but remembers what came afterwards. According to her, the property was bought by people from Ohio of the name Haegen or Hagen, with the intention of converting it into commercial space. The business they opened was an insulation manufacturing outfit, and essentially shredded up old newspapers to make their product. My source recalls her parents who lived just down the road being extremely unhappy with it’s presence, as the dust and debris floated on the wind and in addition to being suffocating on some days, ruined any attempt to dry clothes on a line. She told me her father offered numerous times to buy the property to appease his wife, but his offers were never considered. That would change though. Sometime between the auction in ’48 and 1966, there were not one, but two separate fires at the facility. I’m not sure how large these fires were or how much damage was done, but they may have contributed to the brick building’s demise, and the second was bad enough that the company decided to give it up and sell the property. The old aerial photos offer an interesting perspective on this, as a large intact building appears in 1958, likely has roof damage in 1966 when it is finally sold to my source’s father, and is gone from the landscape in 1982 when the next aerial is taken.
After this, the property becomes farm use, and barns are constructed over the original area where the main school building was. These structures are still there today, even using the same U-shaped drive that served the school. One interesting tidbit my source was also able to offer was that her father told her that the original school building had a basement, and this is where the cafeteria was. She remembers as a child that there was still a small void under a concrete slab where the basement had been. This makes me wonder if the old building was bulldozed and used as backfill for the hole where the basement would have been.
And that’s really what I can find about Zephyr School, and the story as best I can tell it. I also reached out to the Surry County Historical Society months ago for any information they had, specifically hoping someone had an actual photo of the building, but they only directed me to search their website, which didn’t turn up anything.
There is one more interesting thing to note. Something that gets someone like myself who is interested in landscape archeology very excited. The existence of cropmarks on the site of one of the old buildings. This sort of evidence is not common in the United States due to the way structures were built in the past and how apt we are to simply build on the same spot over and over. In Europe however, and especially in Britain these are useful identifiers of old settlements and structures.
At the Zephyr site, comparing to aerial photos, you can just make out part of the outline of what I believe was the auditorium building. While there are no longer any original buildings from the school, it would seem it’s footprint still remains on the landscape, and it’s even possible that there may be remnants of the foundation from the auditorium still in situ.
While much of what I know about Zephyr School after it’s closing is from an oral account, there are a number of written records from the time of the school’s operation.I present the here in chronological order.
The last vestige of Dr. Robertson’s life and legacy was removed from the crossroads at Harmony today. His former office, which had been various things over the years since his death, was demolished, and with it Harmony loses a piece of it’s history.
Thankfully, the monument which had been erected in the parking area in front of the building remains for the moment.
December 9th, 1976. Howards Bridge road in northern Iredell county. Just after lunch time, a local resident named Claude Howard discovers the nude body of a deceased female on the edge of a farm field just off the main road, and near the bridge the road is named for. How and why she was there and just who left her there is still a mystery to this day.
Daria Elaine Smith was born in Nottoway, Virginia on New Years Day, 1953. I haven’t been able to find much about her early life, but by the time high school rolls around she’s living with her parents in Lanham-Seabrook, Maryland attending DuVal High School, which today is a prominent public magnet school. Daria seems to have been a good student, and was involved with numerous activities, including the school’s forensic league and numerous musical groups. She also was a student government representative.
She graduate from DuVal in 1970, and disappears from the public record until 1973, when she enlists in the US Army and is sent to Vietnam. It seems no surprise she would carry on a family tradition- her father Benjamin Smith was drafted into the army, served in Korea, and also in Vietnam. He would retire from the army after working for 20 years with a medical detachment and would earn the rank of major before his tour of duty ended. Daria’s mother Viola was also a vet, having served during the World War II.
Of note, at the time of her enlistment women could only serve in a few capacities, and due to her rank at discharge, was most likely an army nurse with the WAC. Her enlistment ended May 2nd, 1975, and it’s highly likely that she met her future husband Charles Ray Wade during her time in the service. He also served in Viet Nam and was discharged as an E4 (specialist). Wade was originally from Wilson, NC. The couple are married 15th of March, 1975, three months before Daria leaves the army. In the end, whatever drew Charles and Daria together wasn’t enough to keep them together. Though there was no legal divorce, the couple separated fairly quickly.
Based on what records are available, it’s believed that post marriage, the Wades moved to Salisbury to attend Livingstone College together, a historically black Christian school. It’s possible this was accomplished using funds from the GI Bill. Daria’s parents either follow her to NC or had already moved here, though I suspect it’s the former, as they are living at 721 Old Plank road, which is on the street behind that runs behind the college. However, both Daria’s parents had ties to the area, with family in Landis and Salisbury. Neither of the Wades ever appear in the Livingstone College yearbooks. Daria would not have been there long enough and Charles must have dropped out after his estranged wife’s death or transferred somewhere else.
Unfortunately, the uncertainty of life is that tomorrow is not promised, and what should have been the beginning of Daria’s post-service life, one likely marked by accomplishment, was simply not to be.
Midday of December 9th, 1976 Charles Howard noticed a woman’s fur coat laying in a muddy track that led to a farm field. As he stopped to investigate, he also found shoes and a pair of dungaree style pants with a black belt before realizing that they belonged to the body of a young black woman, who was laying not far away in the middle of the road, near a mud puddle. Daria Wade was nude, but retained curlers in her hair, earrings, a ring on each hand, and a third ring was found on the ground nearby. To the Iredell County Sheriff’s department, who responded to the scene, there were no obvious sign of what had killed her. The NC State Bureau of Investigation, who were called in to assist had the same experience. Wade had a scratch across her back and a noticeable bruise on her hip, but no signs of major trauma or injury. There was no ID or a pocketbook, and it would be a day or better before the hard work of Lt. Detective Deane Barnette of the Iredell County Sheriffs department paid off, and the young woman they found in the mud would have her name back.
Tom Thompson, the sheriff of Iredell county was quick to tell the Statesville Record & Landmark at the time “That place is used as a lover’s lane and for drinking parties”. However, I have been unable to substantiate that claim with anyone in the area. At any rate, it seems highly unlikely a nearly impassable muddy wallow would be the scene of that kind of carrying on, and seems even more unlikely an African American girl would, in the year 1976 with race relations being what they were, be out partying with the local farm boys of north Iredell. He also noted that a witness or witnesses had seen a light colored Chevrolet station wagon in the area that night. It’s unknown if, and probably unlikely the vehicle was ever found.