LUMBERTON — Speakers at Robeson County’s 225th birthday on Thursday could hardly be heard over the din of a miniature train’s whistle, the drone of a helicopter motor and the screams of about 500 children.
But those gathered near the stage at the Department of Social Services building at about 5 p.m. whistled and applauded as the state’s Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton said the county has a great history because of its “great people.”
“I’m honored to be in the great state of Robeson — the largest county in the state, the most culturally diverse county in the state and one of the counties with the richest history in the state,” said Dalton, who is running for governor but spoke as lieutenant governor.
As the afternoon sun sank lower, some of those in the audience took the opportunity to tell others about their place in the county’s history — like Jel Locklear, who is one of 15 children who were “born and raised” in Robeson. Locklear served as Pembroke police chief in the 1960s and is retired from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office. He said everyone calls him “Garth,” but that he shouldn’t be confused with the country singer.
“I’m a part of the history of Robeson County,” Locklear said as he adjusted his bolo tie.
Sitting side by side in folding chairs near the stage, 66-year-old Ginger Owens Long and Jennifer Moore, 56, who had just met, shared fond memories of attending county schools, moving away and working as teachers, and then coming back to retire in the community they call home.
“Teachers always gravitate together,” Long said with a laugh.
Long, who was born in Lumberton and whose family still has the “old home place that goes back to 1920,” said she has long-standing ties to the county; the O.P. Owens Agricultural Center was named after her father, who was the first to receive a graduate degree in plant pathology from North Carolina State University.
Moore, who now lives in Fairmont, said she attended W.H. Knuckles Elementary School, where she was taught by Robert Jones, who is now a Lumberton councilman and who recently told her that she always had a beautiful smile. Moore finished Long’s sentence that began with “teachers in Robeson,” by saying “they are the best in the world.”
Sharing history with others was the best thing about the event for Wilson Ray, chairman of the Red Springs Historical Commission. Ray was at the celebration to represent Red Springs from beneath a canopy tent pitched in the parking lot.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and we all share a common bond — we’re all Robesonians,” Ray said. “We get to share stories and our visions for the future.”
Attendees had plenty of time to chat as they stood in line to grab a hamburger, hot dog, chips and a slice of a giant birthday cake from a serving table set up inside the building, where they could also have a snapshot of themselves taken in a photo booth. Those at the event were also treated to gift bags handed out by the commissioners containing a stress ball, a Robeson County magazine, pens, a cup and a water bottle.
The snapshots will be included in a time capsule that will soon be buried to be retrieved later, perhaps at the 250th party in 2037, according to Charles Britt, an assistant county manager who along with County Manager Ricky Harris co-chaired the party’s organizing committee.
When it was his turn at the microphone, county historian Blake Tyner said that Robeson’s culture is a part of the county’s history and should be celebrated.
“The county’s nickname ‘the state of Robeson,’ comes not only from its size at 948 square miles but from the fierce independence and self-reliance of the people who have made the county what it is,” Tyner said.
Linda Locklear, of Pembroke, said she had come to celebrate being a part of Robeson County. She stood near an inflatable “Wild Wild West” game while her 5-year-old granddaughter Layla Nicoloski shot at targets with a bright yellow, plastic gun.
“Cause this is our county, honey,” Locklear said with an enthusiastic shake of her short, dark hair. “We are proud to be Robesonians because of the culture, the people. You know that song ‘Proud to be an American?’ Well, we’re proud to be Robesonians.”
Noah Woods, chairman of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, spoke on the county’s uniqueness.
“We’ve got one of the most unique counties in the state, and we’re a tri-racial community, and that’s a uniqueness you won’t find most places,” he said. “It hasn’t always been this way, but there is a cohesiveness here. We work together regardless of race creed or color.”
County employees and government officials joined residents at the event, giving people like Shirlene Thompson the opportunity to mingle with elected representatives.
“I’m here because I’m very concerned and interested in the county and by coming, I get to meet people that I otherwise may not be able to meet,” she said. “Sometimes having these programs is the only time people get to meet their commissioners and sheriff and other public officials.”
Joining Woods, Tyner and Dalton on the stage were Tom Taylor, vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners, can Commissioners Raymond Cummings and Roger Oxendine, Lumberton Mayor Raymond Pennington and Harris.
Dinah Locklear, who works at the Board of Elections, was one of those who came to “mix and mingle.”
“I’m just out here to see the other county employees and see what’s going on,” she said. “I thought I’d come out and see who I can see.”
Nikki Bowden, of the county’s Tax Administration office, said she wanted to see her hard work pay off as she helped advertise the event by passing out fliers at Pembroke’s Walmart. Edith McNeil, whose granddaughter 11-year-old Harlie Maynor was breathlessly running from one inflatable ride to the next, said she is a child support agent at the DSS and brought Maynor out “just to have some fun.”
Alicia Locklear heard about the event from her mother Lisa, who works for the county. Her 4-year-old niece Nevaeh Locklear and 3-year-old son Jaylon Lowry were making bookmarks at the 4-H booth, sponsored by the Robeson County Cooperative Extension.
“The kids have been dragging me around each and every way,” she said, smiling. “I’m just trying to keep up with them.”
The event featured six inflatable rides, including a giant slide, several obstacle courses and a field-goal kicking challenge; helicopters from the North Carolina Forestry Service and Southeastern Health; booths from the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources and Robeson County towns; antique tractors; fire trucks; a mobile command center from the Robeson County Sheriff’s Department; and vintage automobiles. Dark Water Rising, a band from Pembroke, performed, and C3, a three-piece a capella ensemble, sang the national anthem.
Locklear was one of an estimated 2,000 at the event to “just enjoy herself.”
“I thought I’d bring the kids and we’d do something different and have some fun,” said Joanna Davis, waving to her sons, Jackson Davis, 4, and Austin Davis, 3, as they took a ride on the train. “It’s nice to have something positive in the community, where the community can come together.”
Woods thanked everyone for coming to the event, no matter “where you came from or where you live.”
“Two-hundred-and-twenty-five years is a long time and we’re happy of what has taken place in Robeson County over those 225 years,” he said. “That’s just the beginning of what has taken place now and what will happen in the future.”
Robeson County was established in 1787 from a chunk of Bladen County. It is named for Col. Thomas Robeson, a hero of the Revolutionary War.