History

The Power of Gertrude

  • By Sarah Perry
  • Photography courtesy of Tryon Palace

She befriended presidents and first ladies, traveled the world, and led the campaign to reconstruct Tryon Palace. She was Gertrude S. Carraway. In 20th-century North Carolina, she created her legacy.

gertrude-carraway-tryon-palace

When Gertrude Carraway traveled from her three-story home on Broad Street in New Bern to Tryon Palace on Eden Street, she marched. Her arms fanned out, carrying her forward at a faster pace than many speed walkers. Her heels clicked the pavement with purpose. She stood tall, shoulders back. She stared straight ahead. Her hat stayed pinned to her curls. Her dress never moved. Her pearls never swayed. And when she encountered someone she knew on the street, she said hello. And kept moving. When Carraway was on a mission — and Carraway was always on a mission — she chose her words carefully, briskly. She did not gossip.

Carraway was born in 1896. She lived and died in the same bed. Carraway was not a wife. She was not a mother. She was not a homemaker.

She was a journalist, historian, director, leader, teacher, speaker, president, friend of the president and governor, organizer, mover, and shaker.

She led the restoration efforts of Tryon Palace. She traveled around the world — twice. She talked investments on the streets of New Bern with a group of men. And when the stock market crashed and the Sun Journal’s owners ran out of money, she financed the payroll for three weeks with her earnings. She helped create the North Carolina Historical Marker Program. She guided the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) out of the red and into the black during her presidency (and yes, she ran unopposed). She persuaded her friend, President Dwight Eisenhower to declare a national Constitution Week. And when former first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt decided to call out the DAR in McCall’s Magazine for being “narrow and conservative minded,” Carraway wrote a letter to the editors and told the country what she thought of Roosevelt’s charge.

“If being patriotic, with deep love of country and its welfare, and being zealous to maintain our American Way of Life can be considered ‘narrow and conservative,’ then we plead guilty, and are proud to be guilty of such a worthy characteristic,” she wrote.

New Bernians today remember Carraway as she was — a small woman with a powerful voice who did what she wanted and got what she wanted. Nelson McDaniel, president of the New Bern Historical Society, remembers her this way:

“You didn’t want to physically be in the way of Gertrude. If Gertrude would have stood up to Hitler, it would have been a two-year war. She just flat out got it done.” (Story continues below this web exlcusive.)

In 1962, The State magazine named Carraway North Carolinian of the Year. Here is the cover of that issue of The State and the story that was written about her. Click each image below to enlarge (images are large and, depending on your browser, may take a moment to load).

The State Magazine, January 5, 1962 Gertrude Carraway North Carolinian of the Year The State Magazine, January 5, 1962 Gertrude Carraway North Carolinian of the Year

Education and elocution

The house on 207 Broad Street still stands. Carraway was born inside the three-story home with periwinkle blue siding and an iron fence that still has the Carraway name and family crest welded on. There’s a wide front porch with sturdy, white columns, and inside, the house is stripped to its original form, just as it was when Carraway first came into the world.

As a child, she raced up the mahogany steps and looked out the windows of the corner bedroom to hear the Neuse River racing a block away. She and her sister, Rose, must have crawled inside those seven fireplaces and emerged with their dresses blackened in soot.

Carraway’s father was a banker. Her mother was a music teacher. But the force inside the home was Carraway’s grandmother Mrs. Elgie. After Mrs. Elgie’s husband died in the mid-1800s in England, she packed up her children and moved to the United States. She came alone.

Mrs. Elgie instructed Carraway to speak properly. For hours every day, Carraway memorized poems and songs. On Carraway’s sixth birthday, Mrs. Elgie taught her a birthday song. To invite guests to her party, Carraway walked from house to house and sang the song. Elocution, Mrs. Elgie told Carraway, will make you successful. People listen to others who sound educated.

Carraway wanted an education. She graduated from high school at 15. Went to college at the State Normal School (now the University of North Carolina at Greensboro), moved to Onslow County and taught English. There, she coached basketball and debate. But she fell into the career that made her famous in Smithfield. There, she assigned her English class to edit an issue of the Herald.

After businessmen saw the issue of the Herald the students worked on, they asked Carraway to become editor of a new semiweekly, The Smithfield Observer. She quit her job, went to Columbia University and took feature-writing classes, then edited the Observer for two years. She moved back to New Bern in the 1920s to write for the New Bernian, the local newspaper.

Up and down Broad Street, the people of the town heard Carraway write. She kept her typewriter in a room on the first floor, and at night, she opened her window to let the breeze in. She smelled the river and the sea as she sat, pounding out her stories as hard and as fast as she could. Next door, her neighbors slept with pillows over their heads.

Carraway began to get a reputation. She caught the attention of the biggest names in the country — The New York Times, Associated Press, Christian Science Monitor. She wrote for them and newspapers all over the state. She made carbon copies of her stories and sold them to five different newspapers at a time — in the ’20s and ’30s, newspapers didn’t have their own feature writers. Carraway filled the void. Her subjects were broad. She wrote about Thomas Wolfe, the first printing business in New Bern, the state flag.

She signed her stories G.S. Carraway. People thought she was a man.

In 1937, she quit the paper and freelanced full time. She traveled so much, she bought a new car every year. People in New Bern lined up at the dealership to buy her hand-me-downs.

“I could work when I pleased, do what I pleased, go where I pleased,” she said.

But it wasn’t long before something else captivated her and pulled her away from the only career she’d ever known. There were two key moments in Carraway’s life — the moment she began to dream of restoring Tryon Palace, and the moment a DAR member came to New Bern to seek out the man, G.S. Carraway, who wrote such interesting history articles.

President

At Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., on the evening of April 18, 1955, the air is thick with the scent of orchids and ferns and sweat. The women in the white gowns marching down the aisles fall into a fuzzy, white line, 30 deep. The people sit packed into the stadium, stacked against each other like dominoes. From the top row of the bleachers, the women hoisting the state flags look like children holding pieces of cloth on wooden sticks. You try to count the people, but you give up after 3,000.

It is the opening session of the 64th Continental Congress of the DAR, and Carraway, the president, is speaking. She stands at the podium, back ramrod straight, hair curled over the left side of her forehead, evening gloves stretched past her elbows, orchids draped over her shoulder like the regal sash of a queen.

Her head is slightly turned to the right toward the cameras. The audience follows her lead. She commands them all.

She’s been practicing with that voice since she was a child, and now her elocution is perfect. Her voice rises when she wants to make a point, and she lingers over the words she wants you to remember, pauses a moment before she continues to be sure it sticks in your head. And throughout her speeches and talks, she repeats those words. The words are liberty, patriotism, history, Tryon, preservation.

She rose quickly within the ranks of the DAR. When Mrs. Edwin C. Gregory, the state regent, came to visit New Bern in 1926 and meet the journalist G.S. Carraway, she was surprised when she met Carraway. “She thought I was a man, probably with a long, white beard,” Carraway said. But Carraway charmed Gregory with her knowledge of the state and her love for the country. Gregory appointed Carraway DAR publicity chairman — before Carraway’s application for membership was approved.

For the next 20 years, Carraway traveled. She visited every state except Alaska. She went to China. She knew every first lady between Eleanor Roosevelt and Barbara Bush. Jackie Kennedy interviewed her, before Jackie Kennedy was Jackie Kennedy. In 1946, Carraway was elected state regent, three years later, vice president general. When DAR was on the brink of bankruptcy in the early 1950s, Carraway hatched a plan for a national DAR magazine. Every state chapter sold ads, and within a year, DAR paid its debts and had extra money. She ran unopposed for president in 1953, and during her reign, membership increased at a faster pace than ever before.

Even today, the DAR mourns her on its website. “Although her dedicated work is still with us,” it says, “we truly cannot replace her.”

Carraway loved the DAR, but she didn’t commit herself fully to them. She needed to do something bigger, something no one thought was possible. She needed to build a palace.

Fighting for her palace

It had been 150 years since Tryon Palace burned to the ground. The palace, built in 1770 for Gov. William Tryon, served as Tryon’s home and site of the State Legislature, and the first capitol of North Carolina until a fire in 1798. All that remained was a wing of the stable. If Carraway rebuilt the palace, people’s homes would be moved, businesses displaced, a highway rerouted.

But the public questioned if Carraway could reconstruct Tryon Palace.

“Of all the unlikely ideas presented to North Carolinians, this seemed at the time the wildest,” The State magazine later declared.

But Carraway loved a challenge.

A group of women, including Carraway, held a pageant in 1929 to raise awareness about the palace. The group raised $3,500 and earmarked it for the restoration. But the stock market tanked. Everyone dismissed the idea.

Carraway didn’t give up. She continued writing articles on the palace. In 1939, she wrote letters to the grandchildren of the architect who designed the palace to try to locate the original blueprints. No one knew where they were. So she went to New York and visited a rector who she thought might have a clue. She found the plans at the New York Historical Society Library, made copies, and took them back to New Bern.

Within a few years, she persuaded an acquaintance, Maude Moore Latham, to donate money for the reconstruction. Latham set up a fund in 1944 for the restoration. She announced that upon her death, she’d turn over her entire estate — which amounted to more than $1 million — to pay for the palace.

Not everyone was pleased with these plans. The business owners and home owners who would be displaced rallied against Carraway. She responded the only way she knew how. She used her voice.

On February 5, 1944, Gertrude drove to a local radio station. You can almost picture her marching into the station, straightening her hat, heels clicking, pearls in place. You can imagine how she cleared her throat and tapped the microphone before she began the five-page speech she prepared. “Probably no one ever before has thought of trying to turn down so much money,” she said. “Other towns would gladly jump at such gifts. … If the palace opponents favor the palace restoration and are willing to contribute towards it, as they have asserted over this station tonight, why did they emphatically oppose it before? . . . They have a right to their opinions, and a perfect right to express them, but they are making a mistake.”

The state approved the bill to accept Latham’s money. Latham died on April 8, 1951. Construction began soon after, and Carraway was consumed with the palace.

She wanted it to be beautiful. She went on buying trips to Europe for artifacts and furniture. At night, she sat in her bed and read through dozens of magazines, looking for any information about England in the 1700s. She made inventory lists of doorknobs, books, and candles. She found letters about the balls and parties that Governor Tryon held in his palace and collected them in a scrapbook.

Before the palace opened in 1959, Carraway hired 36 hostesses to guide tourists around the house and gardens. For 52 weeks, Carraway taught them history lessons. She taught them about the light fixtures, the wallpaper, the doorknobs, the clothes they would wear.

Charles Adams was a part-time guide in the ’60s. He remembers the classes he took and how she drove him to work even harder.

“Gertrude made my brain like a Rolodex,” he says. “I had to know everything about the furniture, the silver, the crystal, the styles, the manufacturers, rugs, woodwork, textiles. Everything. Every detail.”

Carraway wanted the hostesses to be themselves when they guided visitors through her palace. “We could get a Victrola to say the same thing over and over,” she said. “That is what I used to emphasize with the hostess. They get poll parrot. They just spout. You can get a little machine to do that. The main thing is the personality.”

In 1956, the board of directors appointed Carraway as director. She reigned over her palace until 1971, and in those years, her work there brought her more fame than her writing ever would.

The biggest award

Within a few years, Carraway didn’t have time to be a journalist. Instead, the newspapers she wrote for in the past began to write about her. “Grand Lady Here” proclaimed the Wilmington Star-News in 1958. In 1962, The State declared her The North Carolinian of the Year — describing her as “a woman who refused to compromise with anything short of perfection.” The mayor of New Bern declared one day Gertrude Carraway Day. Cities all over the United States — Portland; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Savannah; even San Juan, Puerto Rico — gave her keys to their towns.

But the highlight of all her awards came on the evening of May 7, 1982, when Carraway was 85 years old. At The Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, 300 people gathered for a reception and dinner. Carraway wore a white, silk blouse and skirt; low-slung heels; her pearls.

A dozen of her friends shared stories of Carraway before she was presented with the North Caroliniana Award for the year. The former governor Robert Scott told the audience: “I’m cautious about ‘funning’ with Miss Carraway. She knows more about me than I will ever be able to dig up on her.” Then, he grew serious. “I was asked to comment on Gertrude Carraway’s service to our state. I don’t have the time and you don’t have the patience to listen to such a long list, and I know for sure she is not going to sit still that long.”

When it was time for Carraway to accept her award, she walked to the stage. Her heels echoed across the room. She pulled the microphone to her
mouth.

“Without my ever having dreamed of such a fabulous position, friends offered me the first directorship of the Tryon Palace restoration,” she said. “I would not take anything for that era. …Thank you very, very much.”

One last look

Eventually, Carraway slowed down. Her heels no longer clicked the pavement along Broad Street to Eden Street. Her typewriter didn’t sing into the night air. Her voice didn’t boom across town.

On May 7, 1993, Carraway died. It was a Friday. Four days later, she lay in her casket at Christ Church, the stained-glass windows keeping the sun away. Rose sat in the front and stared at the choir as they sang “God Bless America” and “My Country ’Tis of Thee” — Carraway’s picks. A red, white, and blue pall covered her casket and orchids from the DAR filled the air with a thick, sweet scent.

When Carraway left the church, the hearse drove her down Pollock Street and finally, down George Street. The cars and trucks and vans followed behind her.

As she rode along, she passed the Carraway Library and the Carraway Gardens. She passed the live oaks lining the sidewalk. She passed her former office.

And when she came upon the gates of her palace for the last time, she didn’t march past them. This time, she was carried.

Tryon Palace
610 Pollock Street
New Bern, N.C. 28562
tryonpalace.org
(252) 639-3500

Sarah Perry is an associate editor at Our State. Her most recent story was “The Hotel Artist” (August 2012).

This entry was posted in Eastern N.C., People, September 2012 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Power of Gertrude

  1. Pingback: Tryon Palace, Rebuilt from Its Ashes | This Day in North Carolina History

Leave a Comment:

Comments are moderated and once approved will appear in the space above. Your name will appear as you provide it in the block below. Your email address will not appear or be shared. Required fields are marked *.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>