PRINCESS ANN — When Lumberton native Neill Lee arrived at the new Lumber River State Park in 1994 as a park ranger, it was a notorious party spot, littered with beer cans and trash.
One of his earliest visitors was a 3-foot-long alligator.
As a ranger, Lee worked to develop the facilities and lead river trips. He was promoted to superintendent of the state’s fourth largest park by acreage in 2006.
Lee will retire at the end of the year. Some of his friends and colleagues honored him this week with a fish fry at the park.
“Princess Ann was a wild party spot when we started work on the park,” Lee said.
Long before that it was Robeson County’s second oldest town.
Located on a bluff high above the river, the Lumber River State Park’s Princess Ann location is a place of beauty, and a natural site for a town or a park. And long before it was either, American Indians camped there and left traces of pottery and flint from the making of tools.
“Princess Ann is a remote spot, and the people were suspicious of outsiders,” he said. “We had a large bonfire one day, and they all came out. They were a great group of people, and we had a great time.”
Lee, who is one of the region’s leading naturalists, has had a great time at the park.
“Building this park has been a community effort,” he said. “I feel like I’ve been along for a ride. It was a good ride.”
Under Lee’s tenure as superintendent, the Princess Ann site expanded with the purchase of several hundred acres that will one day be the park’s longest hiking trail.
The Lumber River State Park, which consists of more than 100 miles of river and a second site, Chalk Banks near Wagram, added a third site, Wire Pasture, near Pembroke. Wire Pasture will be expanded using state bond money into a full-fledged park site.
Among the guests at the fish fry was the park’s first superintendent, James Sessoms. Lee credits Sessoms with teaching him “the state park way of doing things.”
“We started with Neill and me,” Sessoms said. “There was nothing here at the beginning.”
Members of the park Citizens Advisory Committee, Brent Plyler and Whitt Gibson of Scotland County, and Everette Davis of Robeson County, also were at the fish fry. The committee laid the groundwork for the park in the years before it opened.
“In the beginning it was 40-feet wide and 100 miles of river,” Davis said. “We imagined a state park that was like a string of pearls. Now, it’s 13,000 acres.”
Also on hand were officers of the Friends of the Lumber River State Park. Vice President Gayle Bigelow called the park an “easy place to advocate for because it’s so beautiful.”
Lee said he will take some time off after retiring, but he will continue to help people get on the river and continue to advocate for the park.
Coastal District State Park Superintendent John Fullwood presented Lee with two plaques.
“I only visited the park two years ago,” Fullwood said. “I am amazed at how good the park looks.”
Scott Bigelow may be contacted at email@example.com or by calling 910-644-4497.