by Susan Taylor Block
The process of identifying old photographs is an ongoing and exciting activity. It’s gratifying to pair names and faces in pictures that lack labels, and more so when the images are quite old. The cover photo of Along the Cape Fear has fascinated me since the book was published in 1998. It was taken at Lilliput Plantation, in Winnabow, NC, and was donated to Cape Fear Museum with only one identification, Eric Norden.
Norden is the man on the right. He was a surveyor who drew plats of many properties in town and along the river, as well as Hugh MacRae’s colonization projects. He amassed one of North Carolina’s finest collections of rare books that included 16th century titles, most of which were lost in a 1939 house fire. In 1902, about the time the cover photo was taken, he presided over the Wilmington Camera Club, All three men have a seriousness about them that made me continue to wonder who the two on the left were. I happened upon the identity of the middle man in 1999, when I saw him on the cover of another book: The Jiangyin Mission Station, by Lawrence Kessler. He is Dr. George Worth, a Wilmington native who spent most of his life as a Presbyterian medical missionary in China. Dr. Worth was on furlough in 1902, when he served as vice-president of the Wilmington Camera Club.
Like the others, the man on the left is playing for no audience, and seems too well-dressed to be standing in the midst of an overgrown plantation. Blood courses through his hand as he stares, almost glares, into the lens. His face stayed with me. One day I thought I finally had found a youthful match for him in a collection of McKoy family photos, but I could not be 100% sure.
Yesterday, while viewing photos posted by the Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear, I saw another McKoy photo that made me entirely sure the man on the left is William Berry McKoy (1852-1928). He was a Princeton graduate and a title attorney, who collaborated with surveyor Norden. McKoy was prominent in local democratic politics and freemasonry. In 1886, he married Katherine Bacon McKoy, who was the daughter of Henry Bacon, U.S. Engineer for the damming projects at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Her brothers were Lincoln Memorial architect Henry Bacon; and archaeologist and furniture designer Francis Bacon.
McKoy gathered information on Cape Fear River properties as early as 1881, when he delivered a lecture entitled, “Early Settlements on the Cape Fear, and the History of Old Brunswick,” to the Wilmington Historical and Scientific Society – an organization he founded. McKoy compiled history about many other local sites as well, and some of his work is included in Chronicles of the Cape Fear River, by James Sprunt – owner of Lilliput and adjoining plantations, Kendal and Orton.
In 1887, William Berry McKoy built the McKoy House at 402 South Third Street. James F. Post served as architect, and Alfred Howe was the builder. Architectural historian Tony Wrenn called the house, “Wilmington’s best representative of the Stick style and a first-rate example for any area.” Ironically, William’s brother-in-law, Henry Bacon (1866-1924), merely 21 in 1887, would design another house on the same street, but for an unrelated family – the MacRaes. The Donald MacRae House at 25 South Third Street, known today as the Ann Moore Bacon Church House, was built in 1901.
As late as 1917, fifteen years after the Along the Cape Fear cover photo was taken, William McKoy was still interested in the picturesque, history laden area of Winnabow. He requested James Sprunt allow him, accompanied again by Eric Norden, to visit Orton Plantation and St. Phillip’s Church.
“We have just moved up to town for the season,” replied Sprunt. “I think I could arrange to go down with you, however, or certainly to send you from Orton in a conveyance to the Old Church. … I may be able to go down in my own boat and bring you back in good time in the afternoon.”
With all the identifications in place, the photograph takes on a strong Presbyterian slant, and the connections become clearer. William McKoy and Eric Norden were members of First Presbyterian Church, as was James Sprunt, who was known locally, even internationally, for his generosity to Presbyterian causes. Dr. Worth was a member of First Presbyterian before moving to China. Almost wholly, Sprunt and First Presbyterian Church supported Dr. Worth and his family in their missionary work. Princeton, founded by Presbyterians, played into the picture, too, with James Sprunt’s son, Laurence, following McKoy there, two decades later. James Sprunt was close to First Presbyterian Church minister Dr. Joseph Wilson, whose own son, Woodrow Wilson, taught at Princeton. Sprunt gave substantial financial support to the school.
The Knox tie did truly bind during James Sprunt’s lifetime. His guest lists were heavy with other Presbyterians of Scottish descent. Like most of their church peers, the three Presbyterian cover-men were modest people who would have been uncomfortable in any sort of spotlight, no matter how dim. They were the sort of people who would have taken the lowliest seat at the table. It is interesting that images of William McKoy and Eric Norden landed on the cover of one book, and Dr. Worth is featured on two.
Sources: Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library; Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear; Cape Fear Museum Library; Perkins Library, Duke University; James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River. Tony Wrenn, Wilmington, North Carolina: An Architectural and Historical Portrait. Susan Taylor Block: Along the Cape Fear. Author’s nterview, December 30, 2012, with Elisita McKoy McCauley.