BY DEBBIE PAGE
A chance visit to Caldwell County’s Fort Defiance State Historic Site last summer led Scoutmaster Mike Bernhardt and Boy Scout Troop 377 to tackle an extensive repair project to benefit this landmark.
On a trip to the mountains in August, Bernhardt impulsively decided to take a short jaunt off Highway 321 near Lenoir to visit Fort Defiance, a restored historic home built by a Revolutionary War hero Gen. William Lenoir in 1792.
Lenoir, professional surveyor by trade, is well known for his written account of the Battle of Kings Mountain. He was one of the “Over the Mountain Boys” who marched down to Kings Mountain to fight in what was a pivotal battle to turn the tide in favor of the colonies.
According to Sandra Watts, the chair of Fort Defiance Inc., the nonprofit that runs the site, Lenoir had no formal education.
At age 17, he purchased his first two books — one about science and the other math — and started teaching school at age 18. He could also read and write in English, French, Greek and Latin.
Prior to the war, Lenoir built a fort along the Yadkin River to protect settlers against attacks by Native Americans. After the war, he built his home on the same site, christening it Fort Defiance, in remembrance of its history.
Lenoir also served as a state legislator, president of the Council of State, and president of the first Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina. The city of Lenoir in North Carolina and Lenoir City, Tenn., Lenoir County in North Carolina, Lenoir Street in Raleigh, and Lenoir Hall at UNC are all named in his honor.
Several generations of his family lived in the house, which was purchased for restoration in 1965.
Set on a five acre property, Fort Defiance today displays over 300 pieces of original furnishings and historic artifacts. Beech and hybrid chestnut trees, a 200-year old boxwood garden, and a family cemetery also grace the site.
Visitors can take guided tours and have a picnic on the grounds, but the decades old picnic shelter, rented by many groups for weddings, family reunions or other events, had fallen into to disrepair and become a safety hazard.
A REHABILITATION PROJECT IS BORN
While visiting Fort Defiance, Bernhardt struck up a conversation with Watts. As a Scoutmaster, Bernhardt is always looking for educational camping experiences, in exchange for completing a service project, for the Scouts under his guidance at Rocky Mount Methodist Church.
After agreeing to host his troop for a camping trip, Watts mentioned the dilapidated picnic structure, which was closed at the time because it was safety hazard. Since its rental fees are a source of income and the shelter was the only source of outside electricity for the organization, repairing it was a top priority.
Bernhardt convinced his Scouts BSA Troop Committee to undertake the project while Watts lobbied her board to allocate funds for the building materials.
Soon Bernhardt, an avid history buff who had studied Lenoir’s part in the Battle of Kings Mountain, and the Scouts of Troop 377 came to the rescue.
During the first weekend of October, the Scouts camped at the fort for a series of historical presentations about colonial life while the adults on the Troop 377 committee demolished the picnic shelter’s crumbling roof.
Four historical interpreters, dressed in time period garb, taught the 20 Scouts how soldiers of the period lived, including how to march in formation, how to fire a black powder musket, how to start a fire with flint, steel, and charred cloth, and how to cook over an open fire.
The Scouts also toured the house to learn about people’s daily habits and clothing in this time period and learned how to grind corn into meal using a mortar and pestle.
“They were fascinated by it,” said Bernhardt. “I think it is important for all of the young people to understand how our country was formed and who fought for our freedoms and all the sacrifices that were made, to understand how those people lived, to understand the “Over the Mountain Boys,” who started in Abbington, Va., and marched across the mountains all the way to Kings Mountain to participate in that battle, which marked a turning point in the Revolutionary War.”
After the enjoying programs, the Scouts then cleared the construction debris from the shelter site.
For the next two months, Troop 377 Committee member Aaron Peel, whom Bernhardt described as the “ramrod” of the project, completed the engineering plans, calculations, and ordering of materials to replace the 55-by-28-foot roof.
On Friday, December 18, the construction crew of ten adults, including Peel, Bernhardt, Rich Dagenhart, Cas Carbo, James Carbo, Jason Rutzinski, Keith Harrison, Mark Balog, Bonnie and Lane Phifer, began work on the new roof.
Five Scouts also worked on the project but served as busy construction “go-fers” due to Scouting safety rules.
The group expended over 300 man hours in three days, braving rain and temperatures in the 20s, to complete the project.
Watts was appreciative of their efforts, saying the shelter had been in need of repair for several years, but the nonprofit lacked the funds and means to accomplish it.
“Mr. Bernhardt just stopped to see what Fort Defiance was all about, and the next thing I knew, he was ramrodding this picnic shelter, and I thought, this is just great. It was almost too good to be true!”
“I stand there and look at it, and I still cannot believe it,” Watts exclaimed. She said community members frequently use the shelter as a place to picnic and enjoy the grounds with their families. “It’s made a world of difference!”
In an interesting twist, Bernhardt recently learned that Lenoir’s only living descendant who actually once lived in the house attended a family gathering at the rehabilitated picnic shelter this past week, the first event in its new incarnation.
Watts is proud of the organization’s efforts to reach Troop 377 Scouts and other young people to teach them early American history.
Prior to COVID-19 restrictions, Fort Defiance Inc., hosted 800 local students each fall, teaching them how they would have lived during the Revolutionary War while the adult men in their family were gone to fight the British.
They taught the students how people of that period washed clothing, hauled water, planted and tended gardens, cooked over an open fire, and wrote with quill pens as well as telling them the story of the Battle of Kings Mountain.
The organization is currently in the process of replacing the roof of the house, starting the grant writing process to secure funds and getting permissions from the National Register of Historic Places.
ABOUT FORT DEFIANCE
Fort Defiance is located at 4555 Fort Defiance Drive in Lenoir.
Hours of operation from April to October are Thursday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m. From November through March, the site is open weekends only or by appointment by calling (828) 758-1671.
Admission to tour the house is $7 for adults, and $5 for children 6 through 15. Children 5 and under are free.