LUMBERTON — Touring the Proctor Law Building in downtown Lumberton, Colleen Brown points out new renovations and the many contributors to the historic building’s recent revival.
“So many people are involved, I could go on and on,” Brown said. “We should all be proud of our history.”
Brown has been at the center of many efforts to preserve local history with Historic Robeson at the Proctor Law Building and at the Robeson County History Museum. Her love of the community and her interest in its history runs deep.
Brown’s work over the past four years raising money for Historic Robeson through the Dinner Around Town program contributed to a new roof, heat and air system, a fresh coat of paint, and additional security. Many people helped and individual contributors also were brought on board.
The secret is simple.
“Somebody has to ask. People don’t say no,” Brown said.
That somebody is often Colleen McCarthy Brown. For her civic work, she was awarded the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest award for individuals who have a proven record of extraordinary service to the state.
Former state Sen. Michael Walters presented the award on behalf of Sen. Danny Britt and Gov. Roy Cooper during the annual meeting of Historic Robeson in February.
At the Robeson United Way’s Dancing with the Stars, Brown was awarded its 2018 Volunteer of the Year Award. Brown has worked with the fundraising program since its start.
Both are lifetime achievement awards, and Brown was touched to receive recognition in such a public way. “Appreciated” and “nice” were words she used to describe her feelings in a recent interview.
The evolution of Brown’s connectedness with this community, past and present, began in her youth.
“My mother worked downtown, and I went there after school,” she said. “I’ve always been a reader. The first library I went to was in the old Fire Station. I would check out three books a day.”
As Brown’s reading became more serious, she developed a lasting love of history.
“I’ve always enjoyed history and teaching it,” Brown said.
A generation of Lumberton High School students benefited from Brown’s passion for history. She did not leave that passion at the schoolhouse door when she retired.
A charter member of the Lumberton Junior Women’s Club, the group became interested in historic preservation. For Brown, preservation of Lumberton’s history has been a mission ever since.
To love a community naturally translates into a desire to preserve its history, Brown said. There were many great local organizations to work with and many people to serve as inspiration and role models, beginning with her parents, Dennis and Mary Florence Britt McCarthy.
Brown’s first volunteering experience was peeling potatoes for french fries at the Jaycee booth. Dennis was a lifetime member and past president of the once-powerful Jaycees.
Other people Brown names include the former Lumberton Recreation Department director, the late Bill Sapp; Everett Davis, former director of the Cooperative Extension; teachers Ruth Saunders and Nell Bray; community activists Sarah Britt and Helen Sharpe; and fellow club members, Marion Thompson, Sandra Oliver, Nancy Jessup, Dyanne Stone, Anne Chaney and Dorothy Powers.
Brown also credits the power of great community organizations to get things done. She has worked with many of them, such as the Friends of the Robeson County Library, the Carolina Civic Center, Rediscovering Downtown Lumberton, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Friends of Hospice, the Arts Council and the Gamma Gamma Chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma.
Creating and executing successful fundraising programs — Dancing with the Stars and A Day of Caring for the United Way, Dinner Around Town for Historic Robeson and the Christmas Home Tour for the Robeson History Museum — is especially gratifying for Brown.
Sitting in the Proctor Law Office, which is the headquarters for Historic Robeson, Brown is pleased with what she sees.
“It’s a great building,” she said. “We want to use it as an educational resource.”
The building is Lumberton’s oldest by far, dating back to the late 18th centurty and early 19th centure. Brown knows a lot about the building and its uses over time. But there is one missing piece of critical information.
“We don’t know exactly when it was built,” she said. “We know it was built by Jacob Rhodes, one of Lumberton’s founders, and we know he died in 1824.”
“I believe it was built in 1797. It was here when Francis Asbury came through town in 1803,” Brown said.
Asbury was an early bishop of the U.S. Methodist church, whose travels and preaching ignited the Second Great Awakening.
Her research, through newspapers, court records and other archives, has opened a world of new questions and issues that fascinate Brown. For instance, the great fire of 1897, which destroyed The Robesonian’s archive and several blocks of the downtown area, pushed Brown’s research to other state papers.
What she found was the great fire was one of at least three great downtown fires that the Proctor Building survived. Brown learned a lot about how Lumberton’s firefighting capabilities developed over time.
“I have notebooks filled with history,” she said. “It started with finding the date the Proctor Law Office was built.”
Cemeteries, land grants, old maps and connections between Robeson and the Lost Colony have captivated Brown’s imagination and driven her research deeper.
Brown plans to continue her work digging into the past and building a better future, “as long as my eyes hold out and I can remember where I put my pencil.”
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]