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Sunday, September 23, 2012

No. 111 Academy Field

There are some place names on the Island that everyone knows and remembers, as if it were a birthright; Shell Point, the Sand Hole, Red Hill, and the Bay among them, each because the name describes a natural or physical landmark.In my youth, another was just as well known, even though the name recalled a structure that was long gone, and that only a very few Islanders could remember ever seeing.

That spot was and is called "Academy Field." It lies on the south shore, almost two thirds of the way from the Bridge to Shell Point, and directly across from the Island's elementary school. It took its name from "Jenny Bell's Academy," a primary school established in the aftermath of the Civil War by the Norther Methodist Church. Her school, and hundreds of others just like it, were an attempt by Yankee evangelists to help reconstruct the defeated South into a more civilized and egalitarian society in the decades that followed the War.

Long after Jenny Bell left the Island for the last time, her school house remained a central point and meeting place for the Island community. Both before and after the exodus from Shackleford Banks that quadrupled the Island's population at the close of the 19th century, that small building was the closest thing to a community center to be found. The land title for the academy remained with the Northern Methodist Church after the school's closure, but the church shared its use freely with other fledgling congregations that arose after the arrival of refugees from the Banks; even with the Mormons when their missionaries first arrived in 1898.

After the Island developed with numerous stores, churches, and even a theater (See post no. 70 The Island "Showhouse"), the building itself fell into disrepair due to age and neglect. It was finally demolished sometime before when the Northern and Southern Methodists were consolidated into one congregation in 1939.

But the ten acre or larger plot that surrounded it remained a form of community property almost until then end of the last century. Blessed with some of the largest and most sprawling oaks on the Island, it was an ideal setting for picnics and camp meetings. Several times each summer hundreds of people would line the shoreline there to watch the impromptu boat races that were a part of almost every Memorial, Independence and Labor Day celebration. The brush that surrounded the trees was cut often enough that it was sometimes used as a ball field, and on at least one occasion, a regional Boy Scout "camporee" covered almost the entire plot with tents, huts, and open campfires. Indeed, one of the best things about being assigned to the classrooms on the south side of the Island school house was that you could look to that field, and then beyond it, to see the Lighthouse at the Cape.

But by the decade of the 80s new owners had allowed the brush to grow so tall, and the pine trees to sprout even higher, that Academy Field became a new-growth forest, and even the path to the shore was hidden from everyone except the most ardent hikers. Still, more than a century after Jenny Bell and her supporters gave up on their plan to reshape the culture of a small section of coastal North Carolina, the school she established remains a part of the consciousness, if not the memory, of every Harkers Islander.

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