By Sarah Colson
About two weeks ago, Rocky Mount State Historic Site’s Education Director, T.J. DeWitt joked with soon-to-be education director, Kristin Turner, that the next lamb born would be an extremely rare black sheep. It would be nature’s way of telling DeWitt goodbye after a career of nearly 18 years at the site.
“I told him good luck,” Turner said. “There’s never been a black sheep born here yet.”
Just a few days later, on April 10, one of the expecting Cotswold sheep gave birth to twin lambs: one white, the other black.
DeWitt said it was the perfect way to say goodbye to a job he’s loved since his first day as an historic interpreter in 1998 at the site of early pioneer leader William Cobb’s home. It was in his early days that DeWitt started playing the role of Etheldred Cobb, one of William Cobb’s grandsons, a role DeWitt has become quite known for.
“It really teaches you how to work with people,” DeWitt said of his role as Etheldred. “Communication is key whether it’s a school group and you have 15 five year olds in there and you’re trying to explain that people used to write with a feather, up to I remember once the director of the Cherokee Museum came and he was trying to trip me up on my knowledge because of course he knew all of Native American history. You never know what you’re going to get.”
DeWitt said one of his favorite things about his job as education director is that each day is never quite the same as the day before. According to him, the same could be said about all things history.
“Although history is set, we’re always learning new things about history,” DeWitt said. “I’m sure if I went back and listened to the first couple of tours I gave I’d be wincing. We know so much more now.”
DeWitt will continue his love of learning at his new job at the Bristol Public Library. He will be in charge of the new Jones Creativity Center; its purpose is to “inspire creativity, innovation and imagination in adults.” DeWitt said he’s excited about the new job and confident that Turner is perfectly suited to replace him, especially considering her 23 years of experience as a volunteer and part-time employee.
“I started coming out with my mom when I was about five years old,” Turner said. “She came out to volunteer and I just fell in love with the place. You’d spend your weekends here and you’d get to know everybody and you’d just fall in love. It’s just one of those things.”
Turner decided to pursue an education degree at Northeast State. Part of that plan got put on hold last year when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Turner said her mom just got her port out last week and is well on the way to recovery. Even through that, Turner’s passion for history remained as strong as ever.
“History has just always been a passion for me,” she said. “I do Revolutionary War, French and Indian War, and War of 1812 reenactments. Just being able to do this job (education director), I’ll feel even more connected. You get to just teach, really feel like you’re inspiring, and you get to make it fun and interesting. I love to see visitors’ faces light up when they’re pouring pewter or going to see the sheep.”
Turner and DeWitt also agreed that teaching adults where a common idiom or phrase comes from is one of their favorite jobs.
“When you’re teaching them things, like how all the government documents had a red tape on them and you had to get through the red tape to get to the document,” Turner said. “So you’ll find out little things you’ve heard all your life and you don’t know where they came from and we’re giving you an idea of where they came from.”
DeWitt added, “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from teachers: ‘We’ve been coming here for 20 years and I just learned something new.’”
For some visitors, DeWitt said, learning something new means learning where their family came from.
“For a lot of people in this area, they can trace their ancestors to living right here,” he said. “Rocky Mount’s on the Overmountain Victory Trail and I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say, yes, my ancestors fought at Kings Mountain, so you get that connection. But you also show a unique time in America’s history—right after the Revolution, well before the Civil War, or even the War of 1812. It’s just a unique time in America’s history.”
Digging into the past isn’t the only reason to experience living history, DeWitt said. According to his predictions, an experience like Rocky Mount gives people a potential insight into the future as well.
“In this moment right now,” he said, “one thing you see out is all the ‘Do It Yourself,’ all the entrepreneurial things going on, all the artisans’ stuff that’s coming out. I have a 14 year old niece and sometimes I wonder if when she’s a grandmother, if her grandkids will say, ‘you mean you could only buy the things you had in the store? You couldn’t make your own stuff?’
“We got a huge boost in the year 2000 with Y2K and everyone was panicking. The new one now is the Zombie apocalypse. So many people are like, ‘oh, we should at least go to Rocky Mount and see how they used to live back then.’ It sparked an interest.”
Turner said Zombie apocalypse or not, Rocky Mount is going to miss DeWitt—and of course Etheldred Cobb.
“It’s going to be quite different without T.J.,” Turner said. “He has been here for so long and I know especially for me, T.J.’s family. He’s like one of my brothers. So not having him all the time is going to be hard. I’m going to be thinking of him all the time and I already told him he’s on my speed dial. Everybody’s going to miss him.”
DeWitt said Turner has nothing to worry about. After all, he’ll have a little black sheep to visit and shear. “All I’m saying is this might not be the last time that Etheldred makes an appearance.”
To learn more about Rocky Mount State Historic Site, visit rockymountmuseum.com.