Lower Cape Fear Historical Society
The Burgwin-Wright House was saved from the wrecking ball—someone wanted to build a gas station on that corner—by the Colonial Dames of America in 1937. All told, this group saved 85 locations throughout the country. Colonial Dames also erected a 33-foot granite obelisk at 4th and Market streets in honor of Cornelius Harnett, a Revolutionary War hero and "the Samuel Adams of the South," so named due to his legendary oratorical abilities.
But the notion of historic preservation didn't take firm root until the 1950s and, by that time, furniture had been carried out of the nation's historic homes and battlefields had been fairly well picked over for bullets and buttons.
"The historical society was started in 1956 by a group of people who were seeing pieces of their history leaving Wilmington," said Candace McGreevy, executive director of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society. "Tourists were picking up souvenirs in Fort Fisher and historic buildings were being torn down."
Its first undertaking was to create an inventory of historic buildings, and initially it identified 26 buildings. "Today Wilmington has one of the largest historic districts in the south, with over 300 square blocks."
Ten years later the historical society, just like a popular television sitcom, had a spinoff. It started the Historic Wilmington Foundation, to help homeowners with restorations and to work with legislators to prevent further destruction of vintage structures.
"They do the historic homes tour at the Azalea Festival," she said, "and they do lobbying. They have a fund and make loans. They've bought early houses and sold them to somebody who refurbished them, and they put the plaques on the houses."
This leaves the historical society free to do what it does, which is to maintain archives and files stuffed full of genealogical information. One volunteer "got her hands on an 1882 map of Wilmington, numbered every block and made a file for every block. And then she put everything she could find out about every building in the file. We have that kind of information."
Genealogy researchers stop by to look through those files, as do pretty much anybody thinking about writing a book. "We would point them to our family files. It's entirely likely we have files on a local family, and we also have church records, census records, cemetery records, Revolutionary War records, pensions and such, old city directories to see where they lived."
And the digging also goes on outside, in the formal walled garden. "We have a group of gardeners who do our gardens, and who started saying these houses have wonderful old gardens with old plantings. And they started the secret garden tour. We do that every year."
The Wilmington by Candlelight Tour has been another major fundraiser for the historical society for almost 40 years. This is generally done in early December, with all the fine old homes so very gussied up for the holidays.