Picnic at Bladen Springs

23 Apr

RIVER EXCURSION.– There was a very pleasant excursion down the river last Friday on Captain Green’s steamer, the North State.  The picnic was complimentary by Miss Fannie Green to Misses Maggie and Mamie Johnson, of Wilmington, and was very much enjoyed by all, the dancing being pleasant and the return trip to the wharf delightful.

[North Carolina Gazette – June 28, 1877]



[North Carolina Gazette – August 9, 1877]





Trip on the River – Pleasant
Company – Commodore Tatnal
– The Bladen Springs – A Beautiful
Country – A Dance –
Homeward Journey, &c.




In accordance with a courteous invitation from the committee of arrangements, we attended a picnic held at Bladen Springs, near Whitehall, Bladen county, last Friday, 17th inst.  Everything seemed to combine to render this little jaunt of ours an occasion of unalloyed pleasure.  Taking the steamer Worth on Thursday, and having under one escort three young ladies of Fayetteville, we had the good fortune to find assembled on board a very pleasant party, composed of ladies going to Wilmington and others whose destination, like our own, was Whitehall.  The river was low, and the Worth seemed to crawl rather than run, while her whistle was constantly engaged in the effort to clear away its hoarseness by screaming at a hundred different landings, all of which wanted a little room for a few rosin barrels.  But we were content:  what mattered it {is} that the stream was sluggish and the pulling steamer lazy? our mood was in unison with the lazy sunshine, and the bending willows, and the sleepy cranes which seemed to mock us with their drawling, drowsy flight along the banks.  Never have we spent a more delightful day on the Cape Fear – a congenial coterie which seemed to extract a pleasing incident from everything; the skill of the boatmen in shifting freight from landing to gangway; the charms of conversation, the pleasures of a game of whist, a little mixture of frolicking – and when Whitehall was sighted our hearts were torn between the anticipation of the enjoyment in store for us there and regret at bidding good bye to our Wilmington friends.

At Whitehall the shore was crowded with persons in waiting; to receive us, while upon the bank was a great illuminated banner, bearing the kind greeting, “WELCOME!.”  Here we found that the committee had made their arrangements perfect: our crowd, consisting of eighteen or twenty from Fayetteville and Cumberland county to other, was divided up into small parties, and sent off to different residences in the neighborhood, amid much mirth, merriment and laughter.  That night we stayed at Whitehall, the guest of Mr. James Evans, where we were nicely entertained and enjoyed a good night’s rest. Here we made the acquaintance of Commodore Tatnal, to give him his official title, though he is known to the masses as “Jim Ferryman.”  As we sat in the piazza overlooking the Cape Fear, listening to the fast receding paddles of the North State, sounding like the beats of some great heart in mortal struggle (has some other great brain evolved this idea from its inner consciousness?), there came a call from the other bank, so clear, so shrill, that it seemed to cleave the sheeny moonlight as a sharp dinner knife would make its way through fresh cream cheese – “Hallo! ho!! hallo!!!” “Dat’s Bill Simpson.  I jess know!” exclaimed a great ragged creature who had been lying at my feet, rising and stretching his remarkable length before me.  Then he strode off, and soon I heard the plash of the waves, the reverberating sound of the pole thrown on the flat, and the ferry-boat was ploughing its way across to the other shore.

“Old massa give me holiday.

I wish he’d give me more;

I thanked him very kindly

As I rowed my boat from shore,

And down de riber floated,

Wid a heart so light and free,

To de cottage of my dearest May

I longed so much to see” –

Sang the Commodore, as he bent his tall, gaunt form to the guiding pole, while the moonlight fell on his broad slouch hat, and trickled down over his matted beard like molten silver.

“Ah! yes, you nigger! if I was behind you I’d teach you ‘dearest May!”  Come ‘long back heah wid dat boat, you old fool, and go to bed!” – screamed a strident female voice from the door of a cabin on the bank to the right of me.

“Such is life!” mused I; “even the Commodore must come down off his ‘high horse’ when the domestic broomstick is brandished aloft, and the romance of the ferryman’s life wilts before the blighting influence of his practical fireside.”

“Jim Ferryman” is as honest, and faithful as the day is long, and there is not a man on the river who would not trust him with any amount of money.  All honor to the old fellow, rough thought his exterior and untutored be his mind!

A fearful thing happened the night we reached Whitehall; we shudder every time the recollection of it comes across our troubled soul.  A trunk, which was intended to be taken off there, was accidentally carried on by the Worth; in that trunk was a vest, a pair of pantaloons (if we may be pardoned the expression), a shirt (still asking for pardon), and a cravat; these articles of apparel were intended to adorn the rather lofty person of the chairman of the committee of arrangements, Mr. Jas. Evans, and the world is left to conjecture what would have been the effect on the fair sex at that picnic if the Worth hadn’t carried that trunk to Wilmington.  He raised old Cain round Whitehall when he found out what had happened, and rejected with scorn a proposition of ours to lend him a suit.  However, he took the matter philosophically at last, lay down saying something about “spilt milk,” and we think he snored that night just as loud as if he had been arrayed like Solomon in all his glory.

Friday, the picnic day, was bright, balmy and cloudless, and with a large party of ladies and gentlemen we set out for the springs.  Along the main road and from every cross-road poured streams of wagons, carriages, buggies, horsemen and pedestrians, preparing us to believe what had been told us – that this would be the biggest picnic we had ever seen.  Bladen Spring is situated about two hundred yards from the main Wilmington and Fayetteville road, near the splendid residence of the late lamented Mr. Russ.  It is a great basin of about 100 gallons capacity, the water of which is as clear as crystal, as cold as ice, and possessed of fine medicinal virtues.  We thought we could detect both iron and sulphur, but we were not under favorable circumstances for exercising our chemical knowledge while we drank – for eyes deeper and clearer than this great bubbling fount of nature were looking into ours, and on the pellucid surface of this noble spring was mirrored a form as full of grace as that of any naiad that ever tripped from wold or dell to lave in rippling stream in days of yore, and crowned with that chiefest glory of woman – a wealth of golden hair which caught every shifting ray as it danced on the woodland leaves and the ripples of the limpid stream.

The scene of the picnic was a large grove, garlanded and festooned in moss with a beauty that no art could rival, imparting a picturesque, ancient look which was charming.  Every tree seemed to us to have its history, and we could almost imagine that as their majestic forms towered over us, and their gnarled and knotted limbs swayed to and fro above our heads, they were whispering of other days, when tired invalids knelt at their feet and drank the sweet waters which God has given his creatures; when the silence of their peaceful realm was startled by merry laughter; when lovers lingered where the stillness and the shades were deepest; when the fathers and the mothers of the young men and women gathered there that day were as gay and fair as they – but the sturdy oaks and the gray old moss have outlived the soft cheeks, bright eyes and graceful forms which have fallen away into the dust!

At one end of the grove is a vacant house, where we soon heard the familiar sounds of tuning fiddles and scraping bows.  In a few minutes a set was formed, after which we became forgetful of the programme until a messenger came to tell us that the crowd was ready for the speech; it required some little force on the part of the committee to drag as out, as we were dancing with a very pretty girl, but we made our appearance at the stand, around which the people were thronged on benches, on the ground and in carriages, and did the best we could for them in the way of an address for 58 minutes by the watch, after which Mr. Allen, of Duplin, and Dr. Devane, of Bladen, responded to repeated calls which had been made upon them by brief but pleasing remarks.

We cannot describe the dinner to which we were invited at 1 o’clock.  It was an avalanche of beef, fat mutton, old ham, chickens, ducks, &c.; it was a deluge of cake, pies, tarts, puddings, &c.; it was a flood of pickles, fruits, jellies and sweet meats; it was a glut of all sorts of good things; it was a feast tendered to bounteous hospitality, overflowing in good will and generosity – the offering of a liberal, whole souled people.  The remainder of the day was devoted to dancing, promenading and conversation, and sunset closed the Bladen Spring picnic, the road being alive for an hour after with homeward bound parties.  There were hundreds present from every direction, and the counties of Bladen, Duplin, Pender, New Hanover, Brunswick, Columbus, Sampson, Robeson and Cumberland were represented on the grounds.  The hospitality of that section and people were lavishly offered to us, but we wish for ourselves and the ladies in our charge, to thank the families of Mrs. Wooten, Dr. Graham and Mr. Gilliam, and Mr. Evans, for many kindnesses.  It required some care on our part to keep the Fayetteville girls from being purposely left by the up boat, as they wanted to stay still another day, and were strenuously urged to do so by their Bladen friends.  We boarded the Worth about 9 ½ o’clock on Friday night, and reached home Saturday at noon.  Not the least pleasant part of our trip were the rides down and up on the Worth; it is an admirably managed steamer – good fare, clean berths and nice state rooms – and its captain is not only a good officer, but a pleasant companion, ever attentive to the wants and pleasure of his guests.

Crops are generally good in Bladen, though cotton has rather a bad stand in some parts of the county.  The people speak cheerfully, and hopefully, and look forward to the future, cherishing a bright anticipation of the restoration of their former thrift and prosperity.

Mr. Allen, in his speech the other day, spoke of Bladen county as a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  This is ought to be, literally as well as figuratively; much of its soil is almost inexhaustible in fertility, while it possesses upon the banks of the river, at the doors of many of its farmers, vast beds of marl which is invaluable for the restoration of impoverished land.  It is also admirably adapted to sheep husbandry, and we found the people down there almost unanimous in the determination to join us in our struggle for the protection of this important agricultural interest.

[North Carolina Gazette – First Edition – Thursday, August 23, 1877]

NOTE:  Apparently, James Evans was quite a handsome man.  He was a Cape Fear River steamboat captain for a brief time in the early 1870s.  There is a great deal of material at Wilson Library in Chapel Hill in the James Evans papers including business notes and papers during his time as Captain of the steamer Little Sam.  See Capt. Evans and the Steamer Little Sam.

The Cape Fear River Steamers

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Posted by on April 23, 2009 in Uncategorized


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