Spotlight: the Harnett Historical Association

Many of us preservation minded folks are fortunate to live and work with in areas already established in preservation, whether it’s through one organization or several. Our work is much easier when someone has at least taken a few steps ahead of us because then we can follow suit, increase the workload and efforts, and build upon something already there. Yes, no matter what, preservation is forever an uphill battle. Still, starting at the beginning, creating a non-profit, and convincing a county or town that historic preservation, heritage, and historic buildings can benefit everyone is the biggest hurdle.

Meeting a preservationist with an impressive list of accomplishments happens quite often; after all, this is a field where you work hard to get what you want. Meeting a preservationist who leaves the rest of us inspired and motivated happens less frequently, and is always a refreshing reminder to find such exceptional individuals. From the first time I met Thomas Ellis and Elizabeth Crudup of the Harnett Historical Association (Harnett County, North Carolina), it was obvious that they are on the path to something phenomenal.  Their energy and determination is contagious. The HHA incorporated in 2008, with Thomas Ellis as the President and Elizabeth Crudup as the Executive Director. The pair was inspired to preserve local history when they found the McKay House, a 1910 Greek Revival house, on the demolition list.

The HHA worked with Preservation North Carolina and the City of Dunn to find John and Lynette Mercer of Bluefield, West Virginia, who were eager buyers with a restoration vision.  (See this article in the Dunn Daily Record). The McKay House is a landmark in Dunn, North Carolina and it prominently sits in the small downtown next to the public library. Today, its restoration is well underway and will soon become a coffee shop and spa.

The Harnett Historical Association formed “in response to need for a protective advocacy and restoration alliance for historic properties in the area.” Its mission is “to pull historical properties from the demise that is their present condition into opportunities to represent various periods in its history with vistas throughout the county.”

The above reads plain and simple to me; in rural North Carolina and fast growing counties like Harnett, developers and planners are not often inclined to look at what is there. Instead, houses and barns are demolished and history is lost. The Harnett Historical Association is trying to change that, one house at a time. However, the HHA reaches beyond houses, too. The HHA was able to convince the City of Dunn save the Rosenwald School, which had been vacant for nearly a decade.  Through efforts of the HHA, the school has been cleaned up and the city has plans to reuse the building in the near future.

Currently, the HHA is working on getting approval from the Harnett County Board of Commissioners to go ahead with their plan for an educational, interpretive, historic site that would showcase rural North Carolina history and Overhills history. See a brief summary below. There are many logistics involved including land transfers, moving a few small buildings, and acquiring appropriate permits. These are their biggest hurdles right now.

Such a place would be an incredible addition to Harnett County. The demographics are rapidly changing as more military families move to the region, people move from the Raleigh Durham area and the county progresses. For people like me who are relatively new to the Sandhills and the tobacco farming way of life, a place to learn the heritage of the region would be invaluable.

The goals of the HHA and the “Overhills Remembered” history center are ambitious and long; it will be a challenging, but rewarding route. But, with people like Ellis and Crudup in charge, I have no doubt that it will benefit everyone in the surrounding communities. People like Ellis and Crudup embody the quote by Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” They saw a house in need of salvation, a town in need of a deeper connection to and understanding of its heritage, and they started from the very beginning.

On Friday May 15, 2009 the HHA will go before the Harnett County Commissioners at 9am to hopefully earn their support and votes in favor of the project. This will be at 102 E Front Street in Lillington, North Carolina. If you are local, please go and show your support. If you are not a local, but believe in people like Thomas, Elizabeth, the HHA, and their efforts, please leave a comment here or email them at All support is appreciated and necessary. Without people like them and their unrelenting ambition, historic preservation would not be what it is.

Thank you to the Harnett Historical Association. Good luck on Friday.


A Brief Summary of the History Center, provided by the HHA:

The heritage that was the Overhills has mostly been ignored. With the demand for more combat ready soldiers and the immediate need to accommodate these new solders and their families, historical heritage has really taken a devastating blow in Harnett County.

But wait a ray of hope. One small square piece of land and a handful of structures are all that is available to showcase this history. Harnett Historical Association has risen to the occasion and formulated a project that will preserve and present the heritage of the Overhills in an interactive way.

The History Center will be a hamlet of the surviving Overhills historic structures not put into military use. A tobacco barn, the freight station and various dwellings will be moved to the Haire Farm location. These will be set up to narrate various scenes from day to day life in the early Overhills. This center would serve as the main educational field trip venue to the local schools.

A horse arena will accommodate stables and arena to represent the old equestrian life that prevailed in the region. It will be aptly called “The Circus”. It will have stables, dog kennels and host an array of equitation events and dog shows.

A demonstration crop grown on the property could be tobacco or even tapping turpentine from the many mature pine trees. This would give area students a chance to experience, hands on, the life of an early 20th centaury farmer.

The miniature golf course will be an adaptation of the original design of the one by the Croatan Club. This would be the last project construction project completed.

The resulting area will be not only informative but also thoroughly enjoyable by everybody. Visit our website at  to learn more about our organization