HICKORY GROVE — He has been called the heart and conscience of Bladen County history, a true history lover, the backbone of the Battle of Elizabethtown and the face of Harmony Hall. In a nutshell, irreplaceable.
Bobby Lewis’ passing over the weekend came as a shock to those closest to him.
“He hadn’t had any problems — no health problems — that I know of,” said his brother, Seth Lewis. “I had just seen him Friday and talked to him about 10 times that day.”
Bobby Lewis was found on the side of N.C. 131 early Saturday in his truck, lights on and engine running, with his foot on the gas pedal. He was found by his son, Gregg, who planned to go to Lumberton for some supplies but ended up going to Tar Heel instead and discovered his father’s truck en route.
“I think he probably had a heart attack,” Seth Lewis conjectured. “That’s the most reasonable assumption, but nobody really knows.”
Born as Bobby Winston Lewis in 1935 to Ralph and Roberta “Bertie” Lewis of Bladenboro, much of his childhood was spent figuring out what he could fashion from the items around him.
“He was always a very creative person,” Seth said. “We grew up on a tobacco farm, and he was the toy maker. He would take apple boxes and cut pieces from that, and then whittle the pieces to make bulldozers and dragons, that sort of thing.”
Bobby also had another area of interest as a child, one that he would carry over into adulthood and become that for which he was known in the area.
“He was always fond of history,” Seth said. “It intensified as he got older, but he always loved stories of wars.”
During his middle years, Bobby molded his creativity into a career. Aside from brief stints at a paper mill and at the plant now known as Danahur, he spent most of his working years in building and contracting.
His childhood love of history and creativity finally combined and found a niche when Bobby discovered the Bladen County Historical Society and Harmony Hall Plantation Village.
Seth explained his brother’s initiation this way: “(My wife, children, and I) were interested in Harmony Hall and worked together there. As we were working with it, he shared our passion. The history aspect — the excitement of history — that’s what got him involved.”
For the 15 to 18 years prior to his death, Bobby volunteered at the previously neglected home of Col. James A. Richardson, nurturing his love of history and often using his own money to fund projects that he hoped would restore the home to its earlier glory. During his tenure, the skeleton of the attic was reconstructed, a new roof was installed, plumbing and water was repaired, electricity in the general store was repaired, and landscaping was improved. Bobby was also responsible for revamping the Backwoods Militia and bringing back use of cannons on the property.
In addition to being involved in restoration projects at the estate, as field marshal, Bobby opened the home to visitors every Sunday afternoons, a task to which he was earnestly dedicated.
“About seven years ago, Bobby became the field marshal (at Harmony Hall). He only missed three Sundays of being out there — once when his son passed away and twice for inclement weather,” Seth said.
Being a self-described “lover of history,” Bobby was eager to pass along that love to others. He invited the History Club at the local high schools to visit at the plantation and taught them skills such as throwing a tomahawk, loading a cannon, and cooking over an open fire.
“There is truly no one to replace him,” said Sunday Allen, history teacher at East Bladen High School and Harmony Hall Foundation member. “I’ve lost count of the number of students who have been impacted by him. He taught them so many skills. He was a truly hands-on teacher of history.”
She added, “The students in the History Club have provided community service at Harmony Hall — they’ve cleaned it up, dressed in costumes from that era, and participated in Christmas and spring events there, so they have been heavily involved. Many of them have come to have a relationship with Bobby. They saw him as Harmony Hall and will miss him.”
His creativity came into play when he began staging re-enactments of battles of the era at Harmony Hall, a task he coordinated with his nephew, Scott Lewis. Together, they made guns, knives, hats, and other era pieces for the re-enactments.
“He had a childlike glee at doing anything creative on a budget,” Scott said. “As volunteers, we had to try and make authentic-looking pieces from scratch and without any money. He did a lot of research online and would watch history programs to get visuals, and then he would try to find things from yard sales and dumpster sites. He was a real whiz at finding something leather and making it look like something Daniel Boone would wear.
“He really picked up and became a master knife-maker,” he added. “He would ‘antiquify (pronouncing it an-TEEK-i-fie) them’, as he put it. He would find a knife discarded in the highway, take the store-bought handle off, take it to the to sanding wheel, score it and beat it up a little, and it would look 200 years old. He had that eye and creativity. That’s what I admired about him.”
Four years ago, Bobby decided to take his knowledge and passion for history outside the walls of Harmony Hall. He began envisioning a re-enactment of the Battle of Elizabethtown, an event that would draw people to Elizabethtown from other places. The first year of its existence, the event had around 800 visitors, and, by its third year, more than 2,000 people had witnessed the re-enactment, according to Seth.
But the future of that event is now uncertain.
“I don’t know what will happen,” lamented Allen. “He pretty much handled that event single-handedly. It’s an enormous undertaking.”
The Elizabethtown-White Lake Chamber of Commerce had, for the last two years, assisted with the planning of the event, but Executive Director Dawn Maynard joined in Allen’s uncertainty.
“That project belonged to Harmony Hall,” Maynard said. “It was something we supported and sponsored, but I don’t see it as something the chamber can afford to fund on its own. If it gets picked up by someone, we’ll continue to help with it.”
Maynard said she and Bobby were supposed to meet this week to discuss ways to raise money to support the re-enactment, because funding had become an issue.
Bobby’s death also brings back into question uncertainties that were already looming over Harmony Hall and some of their projects — uncertainties brought to light by the recent resignations of numerous Harmony Hall leaders.
“Without Bobby, I think it’s going to be a sad, deserted place for a long time,” said Seth.
Bobby’s passing reverberated throughout the Lewis family.
“Bobby was my big brother,” said Rebecca L. Lewis, “I have many memories engraved in my heart. Life will not be the same. I am eternally thankful for the years I had with Bobby … we spoke almost every day. I will miss that, our golf cart rides through the Big Swamp and surrounding areas, his enthusiasm and zest for life, his encouraging words and so much more.
“He will live in our hearts for ever,” she added.
The renaming of the Tar Heel bridge to honor Col. Richardson is also in question, and Seth said he and his brother were to start work soon on a re-enactment of the Brown Marsh Battle.
Regardless of whether or not his projects get picked up by others, many claim Bobby left his mark on Bladen County.
“Bobby was a friend of the Bladen Journal and many not just in Bladen County but throughout the region for his sincere love of history,” said W. Curt Vincent, GM/editor of the Bladen Journal. “His visits to our office were always enlightening, informative and fun.
“But beyond his backwoods attire and constant urging to promote local Revolutionary War history, there was another side to Bobby that many didn’t get to see,” he added.
Bobby’s nephew agreed with the legacy his uncle has left behind.
“It would not be the Battle of Elizabethtown, it would not be Harmony Hall, without his interest in it,” Scott said. “He allowed people to celebrate who they are.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.