Fayetteville Observer Oct 18, 2007

Peaceful pond will get some TLC

By Gene Smith

“Ferry John” Smith, the grim-faced guy whose portrait has hung over my fireplace since 1851, would be pleased, I reckon. Might even crack a smile.

We’ll get back to Ferry John in a few paragraphs.

Sometime around January, good things are going to start happening at one of Cumberland County’s most amazingly diverse and most under-appreciated natural and recreational resources.

First, the state Department of Transportation has agreed to deed Rhodes Pond, on the left side of U.S. 301 just north of Godwin, to the Wildlife Resources Commission — something I thought it had done years ago, after the state bought it with money from the N.C. Ecosystem Enhancement Program. The program is part of North Carolina’s “mitigation” effort, which means that something is spared in one place so a road can be built through something less important in another place. You don’t want to risk letting those accounts slip out of balance.

Second, the 400-plus-acre lake (it’s called a pond because it powered at least two mills a very long time ago, when it was called, according to at least one 19th-century mapmaker, “Smith’s Mill Pond”) will have been preserved for future generations once engineers replace the aged and failing gates at the dam. The water level will have to drop for a time to make that possible, but consider the alternative: lost wildlife, lost habitat, lost scenery, lost recreation and that’s quite enough considering of awful possibilities for one day.

Third, the commission will set to work in earnest, building a proper boat launch and ramp and otherwise making life easier for boaters, fishermen and people who just enjoy floating around admiring the wildlife. It’s a birder’s paradise. There are blue herons there, ducks, even anhingas. Anhingas, also called “snakebirds,” aren’t rare. But we’re at the northern end of their range, so if you’re positive you spotted one in the Upper Midwest and you know what a cormorant looks like, you probably were watching a summer visitor that retreated to Rhodes Pond, Florida or someplace farther south after Labor Day.

Alligators, too, work the waters back among stands of cypress.

The fishing is good, so they tell me. Something nonsmall broke water right behind me as I was taking a shot of the dam. In the next minute I saw four other circles inscribed elsewhere on the black water. The turtles, more discreet, merely hung there suspended in blackness, exposing nothing but their heads.

Rhodes Pond has also been a popular gathering spot for residents of both Cumberland and Harnett — bluegrass, gospel, and country music among the attractions.

Kayakers have learned the art there. They and the other paddlers will have to share the water with motorboats once the new facilities are installed, but the pond isn’t suitable for the high-powered variety that really dig in when you hit the throttle, so the character of the lake is likely to remain unchanged.

There’s another resource there: history. And this is where we get back to Ferry John, who, I hereby disclose, was my direct ancestor.

The Wildlife Commission’s version is in some particulars at odds (though not fatally so) with Smith family history, which holds that the pond was dammed by the slaves of Ferry John. And it’s a fact that the pond was part of his plantation, which encompassed at least 8,300 acres and included all three of the plantation houses strung out along N.C. 82, as well as the ferry that crossed the Cape Fear at the mouth of the Lower Little River, where Cumberland County had its first courthouse. It was on that plantation that the 1865 Battle of Averasboro was fought, which makes the pond near and dear to the hearts of the Averasboro Battlefield Commission members and their myriad supporters.

We’ll get the pond’s history sorted out.

What’s most important, right after placing the resource in the care of the right agency and repairing the dam, is that all of us be reminded that such places don’t save themselves. They’re saved through the foresight, labor and influence of organizations like Sandhills Area Land Trust, the DOT board (and, no doubt, Transportation Secretary Lyndo Tippett of Fayetteville), and people like Gordon Myers and Eric Kristoferson of the Wildlife Commission. People, that is, with the perceptiveness to grasp that some things are simply too good to lose.

Gene Smith is the Observer’s senior editorial writer. He can be reached at smithg@fayobserver.com or 486-3581.