LUMBERTON — Yellowing pages of century-old copies of The Robesonian tell of a flourishing cultural and political landscape.
“As goes Robeson County,” says a 1912 issue, “so goes the state.”
But Blake Tyner already knew that.
The St. Pauls native knows much of the history that has sunken into the swamps and flowed into the Lumber River to raise up Robeson’s farmland. His voice, like the distant train horn passing through town, calls attention to times in danger of being lost.
“The thing I mainly want people to do,” Tyner said, “is to learn to love their history before it’s gone.”
As the executive director of the Robeson County History Museum, it’s his job to make sure what’s gone is not forgotten. That’s what motivates him to spend hours pouring over documents to peal back time — what he likens to the “layers of an onion.”
“Anything can be traced back to Robeson County,” Tyner said jokingly.
Take the first black pilot and flight instructor, Ida Van Smith, born in Lumberton in 1917.
“She saw her first airplane doing barn tricks and she told her daddy she wanted to learn how to fly,” Tyner said. “Her daddy said, ‘Sweetheart, a little black girl from Lumberton is never going to learn how to fly.’”
But in 1967, while blacks across the country were marching with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for equal rights, Smith, already a cancer survivor was flying — and had fulfilled a dream by opening The Ida Van Smith Flight Clubs Inc.
“She got her pilot’s license on her 50th birthday,” Tyner said, pursing his lips with satisfaction. Inside the museum at 101 S. Elm St., there is a display featuring pictures of Smith and her flight suit.
Tyner’s passion is an obsession. He’s collected images and written two books for sale at the museum: “Images of America, Robeson County,” and “Robeson County in Vintage Postcards.” If he’s not at the museum, he’s doing research for it. He searches archives with keywords and then delves deeper into what he finds — both the good and the ugly.
It’s in that way that he unearthed the story of Lewis Hines, who came through Robeson County in the 1900s to investigate child labor conditions. Hines was a photographer for the National Child Labor Committee, and he captured for the future Flossie Britt, a 6-year-old girl who was working as a spinner in the Lumberton Cotton Mills. That photograph hangs in the museum.
“She worked for 12 hours at 30 cents a day. That’s equal to $6.40 cents today,” Tyner said. “… I found it doing research. I found her picture in the National Archives, which led to more research. I just recently found a report — the mill’s response to her being there — that she technically didn’t work there, that she came with her mother.”
Tyner found Flossie’s birth certificate, and a copy of her grandson’s obituary, where she was listed as a survivor. Now, he’s found her granddaughter on Facebook.
History grows with each passing day, and technology helps Tyner keep up, as it does other archivists. Recently, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke put its new collection of photographs by Elmer W. Hunt, a university and community photographer, online so the public could tag the people depicted.
Tyner is about to do the same with the museum’s photos, and plans to bring the museum, which he says has come a long way since he began working there 10 years ago, up to date.
Walking down the hall of the building, dressed in his signature Scottish kilt — a nod to his heritage and a billboard for the museum — Tyner plans to do a tour back through 1916, where images and text can illustrate what it was like in the times of Smith and Flossie.
The collection of odds and ends comes to life when Tyner explains each room’s artifacts — Victorian bracelets and pins intricately woven with human hair, photos of notable people and historic places and old maps showing the city’s streets of yesteryear.
His enthusiasm, which was born from spending most of his youth listening to stories told by his great grandparents, becomes evident when he describes his most recent find.
“I’m soon unveiling a photo of Gov. McLean, who was Hector MacLean’s father, with … Orville Wright.”
Angus McLean, a native of Robeson County, was the governor of North Carolina from 1925 to 1929, when he unveiled the Wright Brother’s National Memorial.
Tyner also unearthed a video of McLean and Wright at the event. The video, which would have been played before movies at the Carolina Civic Center Historic Theater, will be featured at the museum along with the upcoming “Journey Stories,” a six-week traveling Smithsonian exhibit that uses images, audio and artifacts to tell the stories of the role of travel in American society.
With creaking floors, winding halls and quirky displays, the museum has as much character as its curator — the father of 12 year old McKay and husband of Bess. His love for people and their stories is as tangible as the artifacts he collects.
“I try to not only talk about famous people, but also about the everyday people,” Tyner said. “When you come in, I want you to be able to connect with something in the museum. If it’s that your grandfather was in World War II and you see a uniform that looked like his, I want to be able to feel that you’re a part of it.”