November 24, 2009
Sun Journal Staff
Growing up, Edward Barnes Ellis Jr. rode his bike all over downtown New Bern. As he cycled by the images and statues of the bears in the city, Ellis wondered why they all had long, red, curled tongues hanging out of their mouths.
In the second chapter of his new book, “New Bern History 101,” Ellis explains why the bear has an unusual “protruding crimson tongue,” and he answers other questions, too, that New Bern natives or visitors to the nearly 300-year-old city might have.
This month, Ellis released the 225-page book that tells the stories that fascinated him as a child about the city where he grew up. The 59-year-old former newspaperman, real estate developer and author of the Havelock history “In This Small Place” didn’t set out to write a comprehensive history of New Bern starting with day one.
Instead, he wrote about the attacks, raids, invasions, ghost storiefs, fires, duels and bear stories that a host might tell his or her guests at the dining room table. In short, he said he tried to stick to the essentials.
“New Bern is one of the great towns of colonial America,” Ellis said. “The people who were residents of New Bern, and especially the leaders of New Bern, were rubbing shoulders with and communicating with the founders of the country. So there are an endless number of stories about New Bern that relate directly to the creation of the country and its growth and what it is today.”
One of his own favorite stories is the “wonderful and fascinating and horrible” tale of the duel between Richard Dobbs Spaight and John Stanly, which he writes about in chapter six.
“Here’s the three-term governor, the first native-born governor of North Carolina, and one of the most eminent attorneys in the state, having a gunfight in downtown New Bern,” Ellis said.
Another highlight of the city’s history that is included in the book is the Union invasion of New Bern during the Civil War.
“I go to great lengths to help people understand that at the beginning of the Civil War, New Bern was one of the most important sea ports in the United States, and that was one of the reasons the Union wanted it,” he said.
He also wrote about Tryon Palace’s origin as the home of the colony’s governor, how it was “consumed by roaring flames” in 1798, and how it became the Tryon Palace Historic Sites & Gardens that it is today.
And in chapter two, he explained the mystery of the bears’ tongues, adding details such as how the bear statue at New Bern High lost its curly tongue.
“To stand in downtown New Bern and think that had you been there over 300 years, you’d have seen (American) Indians attacking, Yankees invading, and raids during the Revolutionary War,” Ellis said. “In a small town in Eastern North Carolina, it’s almost unbelievable actually, all the things that have transpired.”
Ellis said he wrote and researched the book in about a year, drawing on his own collection of historical materials he’s accumulated, as well as through research in the New Bern-Craven County Public Library’s Kellenberger Room and elsewhere.
He said he had large blocks of time to write in part because of the recession, which affected business for his Raleigh-based real estate company, Ellis Development Co.
“I had a really good time writing this book,” he said. “If the readers enjoy it, one-tenth as much as I’ve enjoyed the project, then we’ll have done something.”
He said he has several other projects up his sleeve that are driven by the same “history gene and quirky nature” that urged him to write New Bern’s essential history. He plans to release the book “Historic Images of Havelock and Cherry Point” in January. It will contain more than 200 rare historic images of the area.
“New Bern History 101” is available at Waldenbooks, at Mitchell Hardware on Craven Street, at the New Bern Firemens Museum, The Boathouse of New Bern on Middle Street, and at The Galley Stores Market & Marina on East Front Street, and can be purchased online.