Editor’s note: From every nook and cranny of Bladen County, important news filled 2015. Whittling down that massive amount of stories into a Top 10 for the year became difficult, so the staff of the Bladen Journal chose its best 10, then added several as honorable mentions. The choices, of course, were subjective, so we hope you will keep that in mind as you look through this piece. The year’s best stories are as follows …
1. School consolidation
There might not have been a more contentious, divisive topic in Bladen County in 2015 than the possibility of consolidating schools — which could potentially mean the closure of three schools.
The path to a plan for consolidation began when the Bladen County Board of Education and Superintendent Robert Taylor started to put together a budget for the 2015-16 school year, and they saw the writing on the wall.
“Consolidation isn’t something any of us wants to do, but this county simply can’t afford to operate 13 schools under the current circumstances,” Taylor said early in the process. “Right now, it’s just a recommendation to the school board.”
That recommendation centered around the closing of Clarkton School of Discovery, Booker T. Washington Primary School and Plain View Primary School. The plan would also include moving students from at least five schools to new locations:
— Plain View students would move to Dublin Primary.
— Booker T. students would move to Bladenboro Primary and East Arcadia.
— East Arcadia middle-school students would move to Elizabethtown Middle.
— CSD students would move to Elizabethtown Middle and Bladenboro Middle.
— Project Challenge students would move to Elizabethtown Middle.
— Application students at CSD would be returned to their home schools.
As expected, many parents in the affected areas were not happy with the consolidation plan.
“I understand cutting back on expenses and I know this board has had a very hard time finding ways to do that,” Phyllis Miller, an outspoken opponent of consolidation, said in December. “But I think the proposal was done too quickly — in other words, we have the cart before the horse.”
In November the board attempted to set up a series of public meetings in the areas for potential school closing, but could not come up with a set of dates that worked. At its December meeting, the school did not attempt to discuss the public meetings — which means the biggest story of 2015 could become even bigger in 2016.
2. Summer Sounds Concert Series
The idea for a summer concert series was tested in 2014, but when the Elizabethtown-White lake Area Chamber of Commerce really grabbed hold of the idea and put together a series of four concerts for the summer of 2015, the results far exceeded anything anyone could have imagined.
All four concerts were held outdoors at the Cape Fear Farmers Market in downtown Elizabethtown.
The roster included the Band of Oz, North Tower, Fantastic Shakers and the Blackwater Rhythm & Blues Band — each of which presented a stellar compilation of oldies and beach music.
“People have come from all over to support these concerts, and I just can’t say enough about the sponsors we’ve had,” said Dawn Maynard, executive director of the Chamber. “The quality of music and the fantastic venue has also been tremendous.”
The four-concert series brought an estimated 2,500 people to the Farmers Market and all but assured that there will be another concert series in 2016.
3. Joseph Sledge freed
He sat in prison for more than 35 years, convicted of two murders and the rape of a Bladen County mother and her daughter in the last 1970s.
But on Jan. 23, Sledge, who was then 70, was freed by a three-judge panel after the recommendation of the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission. It was DNA evidence that ultimately led to Sledge’s release.
Nearly four decades earlier, Sledge, who had escaped from the White Lake Prison Camp one day earlier, was claimed to have raped 53-year-old Ailene Davis and killed both Ailene and her mother, 74-year-old Josephine Davis in their home on N.C. 242.
Sledge was convicted of the crimes and sent to Pamlico Correctional Institute with a life sentence.
Upon his release, Sledge went to stay with a brother in Savannah, Ga. He was also approved for a $750,000 check from the state of North Carolina for his wrongful imprisonment.
In a bizarre twist of events, a WRAL cameraman was assaulted while filming the Davis home for a documentary by the Raleigh television station. The attacker was Donald Hales, 67, a grandson of Josephine Davis.
4. Sales tax referendum
For the third time in less than two years, Bladen County voters will decide whether the county’s sales tax will be increased by one-quarter-cent.
The Bladen County Board of Commissioners voted 6-3 on Nov. 16 to put the referendum on the March primary ballot — with a twist.
On the previous two times, the sales tax referendum was to benefit education 100 percent. And both ties it was soundly defeated thanks in large part to the opposition of the Bladen Improvement Association.
This time, the county has earmarked the sales tax to offset property taxes, which would reduce property taxes by 2 cents per $100 of property value and could raise about $500,000.
“We’ve put money into EMS and economic development,” said Board Chairman Charles Ray Peterson. “And voters didn’t want it going to education, so … it’s time to give back to the taxpayers.”
Not everyone agreed.
“Voters have had the chance to vote on this …,” said Commissioner Delilah Blanks. “They have spoken … unless it is to be used for the needs of this county, I cannot and will not support it.”
5. Aladdin I and II shuttered
The Bladen County Sheriff’s Office served warrants on May 29 at Aladdin and Aladdin II, a pair of Internet cafes in Dublin, seizing at least five gambling machine from each establishment and arresting the owners, Jeffrey and Holly Smith.
“In Bladen County, the game is over and the last bet has been placed,” said District Attorney Jon David.
“I feel good about the way the investigation was handled,” said Bladen County Sheriff Jim McVicker.
6. Rain, rain go away
Hurricane Joaquin didn’t hit the coast of North Carolina as predicted by several models, instead taking a right-hand turn out to sea. But its ripple effects still caused havoc for areas inland, including Bladen County.
Almost 10 inches of rain was recorded over two days in parts of the county, prompting Gov. Pat McCrory, N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler and N.C. Farm Service Agency Executive Director Bob Etheridge to visit area farmers to discuss the damages to crops.
“I’ve been farming for 50 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bladen County farmer Woody Marlowe.
On top of the two-day rainfall on Oct. 2-3, the previous 10 days also brought daily rains that added another handful of inches.
“This will be an agricultural disaster for us in North Carolina,” said Troxler. “… from apples to cotton to soybeans to peanuts to sweet potatoes and tobacco, they’ve all been affected.”
7. Historical entities split
Long attached at the financial hip, the Harmony Hall Plantation Village Committee and Bladen County Historical Society split on July 14 by a unanimous vote.
Although much of the membership remains overlapping, the two groups separated and divided the finances in an effort to allow each group to go their own way.
“This split may breathe new life into both organizations,” said Seth Lewis.
Each group went on to elect a new slate of officers.
8. Foster care cases rising
Although many of the numbers gleaned came from 2014, the Bladen County Department of Social Services announced in January 2015 that the number of foster care cases had seen a recent sharp increase.
Director Vickie Smith told the Bladen Journal then that the state’s foster care caseload had increased by 8 to 9 percent over the past two years — and Bladen County’s was following suit. As of January 2015, the county had 52 children in foster care. That’s compared with 28 children in foster care in August 2014 and 43 in October 2014.
The increase has put a lot of strain on the caseworkers.
“They’re putting in a lot of hours,” said CPS Supervisor Jill Sampson. “They are tired, but they come in every day ready to go.”
9. Scout Hut restored
A town of Dublin icon built in the 1050s to accommodate the local scouts, the Dublin Scout Hut was used as a venue for birthday parties, civic meetings, town gatherings and more.
But after a few decades of use, the building was allowed to decay — and its only use was by area children as a place to play and vagrants looking for a place to crash and party.
On Jan. 16, about 50 people came to a re dedication of the Scout Hut, which had already gone through months of restoration by a group of men who didn’t want to see the iconic facility vanish.
One of the leaders of that group, Tony Parnell, said “I’m real proud of what this has become. It’s really come a long way and exceeded anything I ever could have hoped for.”
The Scout Hut is now a vibrant part of the community again.
10. Honoring George H. White
An effort to create a community center to honor the late George H. White, the last serving black congressman before the disenfranchisement of black voters in North Carolina, was begun.
The former home of Mattie Spaulding Campbell was donated by her family to serve as the center so that a living memorial could be created for White, who was born in Bladen County in 1852.
“This center is intended to reflect the model of George Henry White’s legacy,” said Vincent Spaulding, a spokesman for the Benjamin and Edith Spaulding Descendants Foundation. “Neighbors helping neighbors — sharing knowledge and improving lives — this was what Congressman White always stood for.”
— Elizabethtown Police Chief Bobby Kinlaw retires on Aug. 31.
— A Bladen County sheriff’s deputy kills an armed man who pointed gun at him on March 17.
— A community committee refurbishes the old gymnasium at the former White Oak School.
— Bladen County is hit with two winter storms that left minimal snowfall but dropped temperatures into the single-digits and caused closings and delays throughout the area.
— Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, commander of the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, spoke at the Cape Fear Council Boy Scouts’ Investment in Character fundraiser in Elizabethtown on April 22.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.