Anyone who wants to see his or her tax dollars hard at work needs to look somewhere other than the Historic Tobacco Farm Restoration project at Northeast Park.
In that case, Guilford County put money into the preservation project for years in an effort to restore a farmhouse and surrounding structures and use the site as an educational exhibit and museum for school children and other park visitors. At some point along the way, however, the project was abandoned – and now, roughly eight years after it began, the partially renovated farmhouse is just a locked, unused, partially renovated structure that Guilford County has no plans to ever open.
In fact, outside of county parks staff who maintain the site, most county officials asked had no knowledge the project was ever undertaken, even though for years there were apparently big plans for the site.
Back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, when the Democrats were in charge of Guilford County government and money was spent freely, the county put a lot of time, effort and money into the “historic restoration” of the old farmhouse and surrounding land near the entrance of Northeast Park in Gibsonville. The county laid sidewalks, bought signage, added heating and air-conditioning to the main house and renovated the well house and other structures.
Guilford County also hired a historian to research the farm, chronicle the farm’s former occupants and create brochures about life there in the early 1900s. A walking tour map with information was created and a structure built for school kids to sit and listen to speakers about the property when they came on field trips.
Guilford County staff also, when the project began, collected donations of historic items to be put on display in the house – including a large spinning wheel that now sits locked inside. One former Guilford County employee familiar with the project said other donated items are sitting in a storage shed at Northeast Park.
Northeast Park’s historic farm restoration site is kind of like a miniature Soul City – the “city” in Warren County that was planned in the late 1960s to be a quasi-utopian model city, but that instead became the poster child for abandoned projects.
Soul City, which got about $14 million in money from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), was never completed and it’s now a barren area with paved roads that go nowhere and other infrastructure with nothing to support – though some residents have moved to the general area over the decades.
Like Soul City, Guilford County’s historic farm site has unused pavement, and half finished projects and, though it didn’t cost taxpayers $14 million, one former county employee familiar with the renovation efforts said Guilford County put plenty of money into it before inexplicably abandoning it.
“It’s in the six figures,” he said of the costs.
“There was signage, a sidewalk, the restoration an HVAC system,” he added, reeling off other costs as well for the project over the years. He pointed out that the county commissioned a written history of the property and created brochures about it as well.
Guilford County Budget Director Mike Halford said it was difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a project cost because it was not listed as a distinct budget item and wasn’t delineated from the other projects at the park. He said he was able to locate two old bills with notes that indicated they were for the farmhouse renovation, but there was no indication in other cases that work for the project was noted as such.
Halford also said that, since the county outsourced park maintenance and operations until a few years ago, Northeast Park was under the management of Gibsonville and it’s possible that some bills for the project were paid by Gibsonville and then included in lump reimbursement payments the county made to that town for running the park.
Gibsonville Parks and Recreation Director Mike Dupree said that while his crews did maintain and operate Northeast Park at that time, they did not undertake projects independently or do work of that sort without specific direction from Guilford County.
“We didn’t initiate that,” Dupree said of the restoration project.
When asked why the project ended, he said he didn’t know.
“It’s a good question,” Dupree said. “There were a lot of things I was unclear on.”
He said the decision by the county to take over its own parks ended Gibsonville’s roll in handling Northeast Park.
“We were kind of disappointed,“ Dupree said of that decision, adding that it was hard on Gibsonville employees who worked at Northeast Park.
At some point about five or six years ago, the work on the historic farm project trickled to a halt – despite the amount of time and effort that had gone into it.
Some of the causes suggested to the Rhino Times for abandoning it were the budget constraints in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, the exit of former parks staff and turnover in top county positions. Others say the county just “forgot” about it over time as parks operations and management were overhauled and restructured.
There are other questions as well. One current county parks worker pointed to the aluminum siding that was added to the farmhouse.
“They put [aluminum] siding on it, which is not very historical,” the worker said.
The former county employee who spoke with the Rhino Times about the restoration effort said there were grand plans to develop a program with the school system with the farm site to teach students about life and farming a century ago.
“The idea was that school kids would come in on a field trip and ride the carousel at the park,” he said, referring to an attraction at the park that actually is up and running. He added that a structure was built for the school kids to sit and hear lectures about the place.
One brochure from the project stated, “Did you enjoy your visit? Would you like to learn more about the historic tobacco farm at Northeast Park? Interested in scheduling a school group to learn more information and see demonstrations on early 20th century farm life in NC? Please visit our website for more information.”
The brochure goes into great detail about the property and the family who lived there.
“In the first decade of the 20th century, Peter J. Gerringer and Lue Reese Gerringer built this two story farmhouse and farmed the surrounding acres. Lue and Peter had five surviving children – John, Charlie, Hubert, Pete, and Sallie. On April 13, 1927, their youngest child, and only daughter, 17 year old Sallie, married 21 year old Steiner William King. With their older children already moved out, Peter and Lue had the newlyweds move into the newly built farmhouse. “
It even says where everyone slept.
“Lue and Peter slept in the parlor and Steiner and Sallie occupied the hall,” the literature states. “Steiner and Sallie had three children from 1928-1932 – Tula, Betty, and Bobby. In 1932, Lue died, and Steiner and Sallie moved into the Parlor, with Peter sleeping in the Hall until his death in 1938. From 1938-1944, Sallie and Steiner had three more children – Frankie, Molly, and Linda. They continued to sleep in the parlor, and use the room to entertain guests, with Sallie often holding quilting parties in the parlor in the winter. The hall was used as a work room for sewing, shucking corn, shelling peas, and light cooking.”
It sounds like the farmhouse and surrounding area was a bustling center of activity nearly a century ago, though no one even passes through these days despite the county money that has been sunk into it.
The farmhouse restoration isn’t the first project at Northeast Park to be a bust. The county has been trying to get a kiddie train running at the park for five years. The train has cost taxpayers nearly a half million dollars so far and still isn’t working.
Last week the county sent out invitations for a County Lights Aglow festival at the park on Friday, Dec. 2. The release mentions a lot of activities that night – and riding a train around the park isn’t one of them.