Raleigh News and Observer Article, March 19, 1921 by Carl Goerch

Bath- North Carolina’s Oldest Town Shakes off the Dust of Tradition- First Tarheel Capital- Only Town in the South Today Governed by Women


1921— Is the town of Bath— the oldest in North Carolina — at last to rid itself of the legendary curse of George Whitfield who shook the dust of the town from his shoes and declared that the community should never increase in size! Can the women of Bath by taking over administrative control of the city accomplish what the men have failed to do in almost two centuries. Will it be possible for Bath to grasp some of the opportunities for development which have been neglected in the past and take advantage of its splendid natural resources. These are questions which not only the people of Bath but citizens elsewhere who are acquainted with the story of the town are asking themselves.  The town today is governed exclusively by women.  As far as is known it is the first community of any size ” in the South to have a female administration.  The men have relinquished absolutely all control and have stepped aside after having informed the ladies that the destiny of the town now lay in their hands.

Photo of Commissioners left to right— Mrs. T. A. Brooks Chairman. Mrs. A. O. Crawley and Mrs. Vonnie Marsh


First Capital of State

The town election was held about two months ago. Two weeks before the election a meeting took place attended by the leading men of the community at which time it was decided to make a change in the administration.  A committee was appointed to call upon Mrs. T. A. Brooks, Mrs. A. O. Crawley and Mrs. Vonnie Marsh three prominent local women and request them to be candidates for town commissioners.  And right then and there it looked as though the plan would fall through. The women are members of old and well-known families of Eastern Carolina and have resided in Bath practically all their lives.  When the committee waited upon them they acknowledged that they were interested in the welfare of the town and they realized there was much community work to be done.  But they abhorred the idea of holding public Office and the notoriety which they could not hope to dodge.  It took all the persuasive powers of the committee — assisted by other citizens — to induce them finally to consent.  They were elected without opposition.  The town of Bath was incorporated in 1705 and was the first capital of North Carolina.  No other community in the State is as rich in interesting history and none played a more important part in the early development of the State.  There it was that the first church was built: St. Thomas Episcopal Church erected in 1735 and constructed of brick brought from England.  There also the famous pirate Teache made his headquarters during the latter part of the eighteenth century, finding refuge in the placid waters of the Pamlico river from British and Spanish vessels which often drove his craft from the seas.  The first roads in North Carolina were built out from Bath and the first public library was established there.

Whitfield Pronounces Curse

In the early years of the town tradition has it that a Methodist preacher George Whitfield came to Bath and proceeded to hold a series of meetings during which he denounced the citizens for their manner of living.  His words were not received very kindly and it is stated that he was requested to leave the town.  Whitfield was escorted as far as the town limits by a committee of citizens.  When outside the town he halted, turned around and removed the shoes from his feet shaking the dust from them and is then said to have pronounced a curse upon the community for the treatment accorded him and to have proclaimed that it should never increase in population or size.  Whether there is any truth to the legend or not the fact remains that Bath has progressed very little during the past one hundred and fifty years.  And this in spite of the fact that its location leaves nothing to be desired.  It is situated only twelve miles from Pamlico Sound and is surrounded by the best farming land in North Carolina. Few towns could ask for a more strategic or beautiful location.  New Bern, Washington, Elizabeth City, Wilmington and other coast towns are far more disadvantageously located but note what happened:

State Capitol Moved Away

The seat of State government was removed from Bath and it afterwards became the county seat- of Beaufort County.  Later it lost that “distinction when the court house was located at Washington.”  It was at one time a shipping point of importance but now there is very little commerce of any kind done there.  When railroads began to spin their webs of iron over the country they did not approach within 15 miles of Bath.  It has no telegraph office and it was late in securing telephone communication.  But there is one thing that time could rot remove from Bath— and that is the finest citizenship of Eastern North Carolina.  No community can boast of a more friendly or hospitable population.  In spite of the fact that the town has a population of close to one thousand it is more like a big family than anything else.  The spirit of neighborly co-operation has been developed to a high degree and those of its citizens who may be taken ill or who are the victims of misfortune can never complain of neglect or indifference. 

There are no police officers in the town and there is no need for their services.  While it is true that a recorder is appointed annually there has been but one case tried before him in two years— and that was for minor misconduct.  No one can explain the lack of the community’s development unless it is that past generations were satisfied with what the Lord had provided them and did not care to push themselves to greater effort. 

The lands are unusually fertile the many streams in the neighborhood abound with fish and all kind of game— from black bear and deer to partridges — is to be found in the woods.  History teaches that those localities which are unusually blessed with natural resources are often outstripped by other localities in which the citizens have to strive harder for their livelihood.  But of late Bath has begun to bestir itself and the election of women as the chief executives of the town indicates that there is nothing “old-fogvisli” about the citizenship. “Whitfield said that as long as men ran the town it wouldn’t be able to grow” remarked a resident of Bath recently “but he didn’t say anything about the women.  Maybe the ladies will be able to get the town from under the curse from long ago”

The Women Take Charge

Following their election, the three ladies held a meeting and elected Mrs. T.A. Brooks as chairman.  At that time news of the proceeding became noised abroad and I went to Bath for the purpose of interviewing the new commissioners and ascertaining how they liked their new duties.  My reception was warm enough but when I announced the purpose of my visit there seemed to be a sudden chill in the atmosphere.  The ladies made it perfectly plain that they were not after notoriety. “We did not seek the office and we would rather that there was nothing said about it” said Mrs. Brooks speaking for the other two commissioners as well as herself.  “We want to do whatever we can for our town and if we accomplish anything worthwhile there probably would be no objection to making mention of it through the papers.  But in the meantime please don’t say anything about us”.  In view of the chocolate cake, the sweet-potato pie, the glass of rich milk, the pecans and the good cigars there was nothing for me to do but comply with the request.  But it wasn’t long before news began to come out of Bath.

Old Town Livens Up

“The old town seems to be livening up considerably” said one visitor. “I was down there yesterday and they were working to beat the band on the streets.  Had five or six teams at work and a scraper too.  First time I’ve ever seen anything like that down there.  A few days later there came additional news ‘Bath is going to build a new school house’.  I see they’ve got a big pile of bricks already on the ground and I understand that they intend starting work in a very short time. Then there came the information that a clean-up campaign had been started that weeds on vacant lots were being cut down that new shrubbery and flowers were being planted and that other improvements were being made so I thought it time to visit Bath again.  I managed to get the three commissioners together at Mrs.  Brooks’ home and put my plea before them.

Goerch Gets An Interview

“Ladies”‘ I began “you’re doing something here that is of nation-wide interest and that cannot be kept concealed any longer. You are working an injustice upon your own sex.  Other towns have the right to profit by your experience and to learn of what you have done.  It isn’t right to keep the news from them any longer” There was a lot more along the same line all very beautiful and very convincing.  Finally, they agreed to give me some data on the work they were doing and the results that had been accomplished.  The first matter to have received their attention was an improvement to the city streets.  The financial receipts of the town of Bath by the way are limited.  There is scarcely any money available for public work and the ladies found this out soon after they went into office.  But that didn’t disturb them. They called upon several citizens and requested the use of teams for street work.

Most of the residents of Bath are farmers and at that time there was very little work being done on the farms.  They consented willingly enough to give ‘not only the use of their teams but their own services as well’.  In less than a week the work was finished and the improvement was remarkable.  “We don’t deserve any special credit for it” remarked Mrs. Crawley “Without the co-operation and assistance of the citizens as a whole nothing could have been done to the streets.  But not a single man refused to help.  We have found that same spirit manifested continuously since we took the office”.

Women Hustle Things Along

With regard to the new school building, it must be admitted that the men under the old administration originally planned for erecting a new structure.  However, credit must be given the women for hustling things along. They got down behind the work and it wasn’t long before the brick was on the ground.  It is their intention to do everything possible so that the building will be ready for occupancy at the beginning of the fall term.  The school will be a two-story structure built along modern lines and will include high school as well as the grammar grades.  A large campus will adjoin the building.  Heretofore the children of Bath have studied in a small frame structure where conditions have been anything but satisfactory.  The next thing that the ladies undertook was the collection of taxes. In the past there has been more or less difficulty in getting taxes paid on time.  At present however over 90 per cent of the taxes have been paid due to the efforts of the new administration “City Beautiful” Campaign.  And now they are in the midst of a “city beautifying campaign”.  Unsightly weeds have been cut down and an abundance of attractive shrubbery and flowers have been planted.  The use of paint is also being encouraged and considerable improvement is noticeable in this direction.  It is doubtful whether there is another town in this section which can boast of better-kept buildings fences and yards. The commissioners have great visions of the future. They hope at no distant time to see Bath and Washington connected by a hard surfaced road.  They also hope to secure new industries and thereby gain an increased population.  They want to have a well-stocked public library in the town where young and old may find enjoyment. 

“But when it comes to those larger things I am afraid we will have to get men in office again” laughed Mrs. Brooks ‘for I know we won’t be able to carry those details out by ourselves.  We are satisfying ourselves with immediate needs which can be used as a foundation for a later growth of the community.  There are many things which we as well as every other citizen of Bath would like to see done but we realize that it is impossible to get them done now.  We’ll attend to the little things and afterwards the men can go ahead and look after the more important matters”.

Keep the Home Fires Burning

In connection with the work they have done thus far, the new commissioners have demonstrated another important fact and that is that —a woman can attend to public office and keep up with her home at the same time.  Mrs. Brooks, Mrs. Marsh and Mrs. Crawley are housekeepers and they have not neglected their homes for the interests of the city.  But the time that the average women give to visiting is employed by the commissioners in attending to their public duties. Their motto still is that woman’s first place is in the home.  However, they do not believe that woman’s sphere is confined to the home alone.  As for the men of Bath they are more than satisfied with the new town government.  They are proud of the new commissioners and the results that have been achieved thus far. They are ready to back them up in every new work that is undertaken.  And needless to say, the other women of Bath are also proud of the distinction that has been bestowed upon their sex.  I mentioned the fact to the commissioners that I had taken a few pictures of scenes around Bath and suggested that I would also like to have a photograph of them. And that is where another argument was started.  All three of the ladies at first flatly refused to permit their pictures to be taken.  They insisted that it wasn’t necessary and besides they didn’t want to have it done.  The violet has always been considered the flower of modesty and retirement but it is a three-ring circus and six brass bands as compared to the Bath commissioners.  At last; however, they consented to the procedure with the hope that it was too cloudy to secure a good picture. There hasn’t been a single ripple of discord since the ladies went into office.  There is no petty jealousy or any feeling of that nature. The commissioners work together in perfect harmony considering themselves subservient at all times to the welfare of the town as a whole.  They go about their work quietly without undue publicity or public parade. They are women who hold the respect and admiration of all who know them and All realize that they did not seek the office for personal glory but with sincere desire to help their community and be of assistance in its progress.  And so it is that Bath appears to have taken a new life once more.  

All rights reserved by the News and Observer and author, Carl Goerch, who later served on Mr. Edmund Harding’s 250th anniversary committee.