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The Best Artifact

What is the best artifact of History Museum?

Among the several thousand objects in the collection of the Robeson County History Museum, what is the very best of the best?

Ed Allen’s bicycle is a visitor favorite. A local character, he was much loved by Lumberton residents, and his bicycle is memorable. It was loaned by Layton Britt.

Wally Gator, the stuffed alligator, is a favorite of children visitors. Other native wildlife, contributed by Jan Tedder, adorn the walls.

A favorite of Museum volunteers is an early 20thcentury oil painting of Lumberton along the Lumber River from the perspective of the West 5th Street bridge. It was donated by the family of the late John Wishart Campbell.

However, the best artifact is the Museum building itself. The Southern Express building was constructed more than 100 years ago at Elm and 1st streets beside the Carolina Central railroad tracks (now CSX).

Imagine men in suits and women in full-length dresses dining at the Southern Express restaurant. Travelers may have relaxed in the shade around an artesian well as they waited for the next train.

At the turn of the century, the county seat had a population of approximately 1,200, and the downtown was transitioning from wood buildings to brick. Four major fires in the downtown and the town’s growing prosperity called for safer more permanent construction.

The Southern Express is unique among downtown Lumberton buildings for its ironwork front. The building is 3,741 square feet with three front doors to accommodate three businesses.

When the late Jack and Helen Sharpe purchased the building in 1984, it was known as the French Allen building. Age and neglect had taken a terrible toll, but it was lovingly restored at considerable cost.

Restoration photos show there was virtually no floor above the basement. The original intent of the building’s three rentable spaces was retained. The museum occupies all three units, and the many rooms are ideal for the museum’s themed displays.

A covered porch was added to the rear of the building off the street floor. Eagle Scout projects of Troop 301 added a deck off the basement level (Landon Buck,2018) and a pergola in the garden (Ethan Stevens, 2021).

The sunken garden, with more than 100 azaleas donated by WRAL-TV, sweeps around three embankments. Trees provide shade along the tracks, including four mature live oaks.

Designed by Colleen Brown and Marion Thompson, the garden is dedicated to Helen Sharpe, who turned the building’s deed over over to the Robeson County History Museum in 2015. It is one of the most remarkable gifts in Lumberton history.

The museum was founded in 1986, hand in hand with Lumberton’s bicentennial celebrations. Since then, it has gotten a lot more interesting inside and out.

The next time you visit the Museum take a few moments to consider the building as a historic treasure.

-by Scott Bigelow


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