My childhood memories of the Buckhorn Dam relate to visiting my grandmother Verta’s family in the old Calvin and Maltida Everette Womack Cox home place. I remember our cousin, Grace, daughter of my great-uncle and aunt, Doyle and Attie Lee Cox, making popcorn in a big pot in a large open fire place. I remember playing at the dam and hearing stories from my grandfather, Puzie Lett, about how he and other men spent eight years building the dam.
As a child I did not realize that thousands of people, mostly immigrants who had landed on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean and traveled upstream on the Cape Fear River to follow their dream of a different life. They had to overcome migration to a faraway land, rapids on the river, and then deal with the acclimation to a new world.
As I watched the water flow over Buckhorn Dam and saw how the dam stretched across the river from Lee to Chatham County I wondered about the folks on the other side of the river. I was curious about the Buckhorn Dam Power Plant and went over there one day with my parents, Puzie Doyle “Bud” and Ruby Knight Lett.
Back then I did not know that 16 years after returning home, the overflowing of the Cape Fear River would awaken a fresh interest in me. The storm that brought pouring rains and high waters flooding my creek and pond… saturating the roots of a 100-year-old maple and forcing its fall that blocked my driveway therefore demanding my attention.
As a writer I look for symbolism in all events, learn lessons from all experiences, and look for opportunities through crises. During Hurricane Florence, I was reminded that nature cannot be tamed. I researched the Cape Fear River… how a river must be harnessed but can never be controlled... and I have written several articles.
Chatham side of Buckhorn Dam
Seeking more knowledge I searched the internet and explored Facebook pages for pictures and information. Friends and new acquaintances shared data and eventually I connected with a woman who had grown up next to the Buckhorn Dam and the Power Plant close to Corinth. So I traveled modern roads through Buckhorn, Salem, and Avent’s Ferry communities to arrive at the home of Joan Palmer Frazier, located on Buckhorn Road, Moncure. As I drove down the Buckhorn Road near Moncure in Chatham County, I thought of a tale of two cities… and now an experience with two Buckhorns.
Joan’s father, George McQueen Palmer, had worked for Carolina Power & Light Company and brought his wife, Hazel Berlyn Cross, and daughter, Joan, to live near Corinth in early 1943. The family moved into one of the four houses provided by CP&L and newly wired with electricity. “We had a big bathroom featuring a tub with craw legs and running water,” she said.
Joan said her father, George, grew up on a farm in Gulf with his parents, Orren and Mattie Cole Palmer, and moved to Jonesboro during the Depression. He joined the Civilian Conservation Corp and lived in a tent city near Brevard. He worked on the Blue Ridge Parkway and other roads in that area. Later, George got a job with CP&L as a lineman and lived in Laurinburg with his wife, Hazel, daughter of James Everette Cross and Iula Dickens Cross of Corinth.
After relocating near Buckhorn Dam, George and Hazel brought forth two more daughters, Judy and Georgann.
“We grew up with the children of the other supervisors in a close-knit community,” she said.
The superintendent was Norris Thomas and other operators were Johnny Martindale and Avery Marks.
Joan said, “The men were on call 24 hours a day. A horn would go off to alert the men about high water. The designated person would have to go to the dam and lower the gates which controlled the water in the canal leading to the power plant.”
Buckhorn plant produces electricity
While my family talked tobacco pert-near half the time, Joan’s father spoke often about the building of the dam, construction on the plant, and erection of poles with wiring to move the electrical current forward.
There were many setbacks… more than 20 workers were lost to drowning and freak accidents like seven men being struck by lightning. The multi-year project was plagued with financial woes, including defaulted loans and foreclosures and new owners. The plant was finally completed by Phoenix Construction Company.
In May 1907, part of the earth-filled Buckhorn dam washed away and operation was halted to provide time for the dirt to be replaced by concrete. Then the transmission line to Fayetteville had deteriorated and was rebuilt to reach the goal of the turning on the power on New Year’s Day 1908. Let there be light... at least in Fayetteville and then later to Jonesboro and Sanford!
Joan said that her father told her an interesting story about how two generators manufactured for a South American firm were intercepted to a Chilean port where they fell into the ocean along with many members of the ship’s crew. When General Electric received orders for similar generators for the Buckhorn power plant it extracted the units from the sea and shipped them to central North Carolina.
“Can you imagine that the generators were retrieved from the waters near the coast of Chile?,” Joan noted.
Meanwhile, the Buckhorn Power Plant area of Chatham County became a destination spot that attracted folks interested in sight-seeing, picnicking, fishing, courting, etc. But that’s another story for another day.
AlexSandra Lett is a professional speaker and the author of “A Timeless Place, Lett’s Set a Spell at the Country Store” and five other books.” See www.atimelessplace.com. She can be reached at 919-499-8880 or LettsSetaSpell@aol.com.