A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

You’d be forgiven for losing your temporal bearings while in New Bern. It’s almost a requirement in this old-world coastal city that sits at the confluence of the Neuse and

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

You’d be forgiven for losing your temporal bearings while in New Bern. It’s almost a requirement in this old-world coastal city that sits at the confluence of the Neuse and

All Aboard for History

You’d be forgiven for losing your temporal bearings while in New Bern. It’s almost a requirement in this old-world coastal city that sits at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers. The small group of history buffs huddled at the corner of Pollock and George streets on an overcast weekday seem to understand this. Directly across from them, an elaborate Georgian wrought-iron gate opens to the sprawling courtyard of Tryon Palace, the painstakingly accurate replica of North Carolina’s first permanent capitol, originally completed in 1770. Not even half a block away, in the opposite direction, is the stately John Wright Stanly House, where President George Washington stayed while passing through town during his three-month tour of the South in the spring of 1791.

At the John Wright Stanly House, the story of the home’s namesake family takes a deadly turn. photograph by Baxter Miller

Standing in the doorway of an old-fashioned red-and-black trolley parked in the shade of a billowing magnolia tree, Mike Woika tugs at the bill of his baseball cap, welcoming a few stragglers to the group. He’s been chatting with Ali Frederick, who just moved to New Bern from Topsail Island two months ago. She’s brought along a couple of friends from out of state. In fact, almost everyone milling about here, waiting to embark on the New Bern Historic Trolley Tour, is from anywhere but North Carolina: There’s Dave and Terry Martin, who’ve traveled across the country from Torrance, California; Roy and Rhonda Alexander, from Buckeye, Arizona; and Jim and Sue Walter, from Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Even Woika, the tour guide for today’s outing, arrived here less than a year ago from Coral Springs, Florida. Before then, the 65-year-old retired bureaucrat had never set foot in New Bern. Now, he’s a proud resident whose knowledge of the city’s history runs deep. “Most people, when they retire, they move to Florida,” Woika says. “My wife and I moved away from Florida.” He waves his arm up George Street, pointing to the embarrassment of historical riches surrounding him — the palace; the John Wright Stanly House; the former property of Stanly’s mixed-race son, John Carruthers Stanly, popularly known as Barber Jack; and several other structures lining this one tiny city block. “South Florida has no history,” Woika says with a laugh. “Coral Springs wasn’t even incorporated until 1963. We wanted to retire in a place with deeper roots.”

• • •

Roots don’t run much deeper than they do in New Bern, the state’s second-oldest city. Over the next hour and a half, Woika and trolley operator Wayne Miller will escort this group of 20 tourists past colonial mansions and Civil War sites, 200-plus-year-old churches and a massive cemetery with ancient oak trees draped in Spanish moss. They’ll roll by the downtown drugstore where Pepsi was invented, stop at a building once listed in the Green Book guide used by Black travelers during the Jim Crow era, and continue through the parts of New Bern that burned to the ground during the Great Fire of 1922.

They won’t just drive by these sites, though. Woika is a master storyteller with a dynamic personality, able to put human faces to the old buildings, homes, and businesses scattered across New Bern. He’ll tell how Barber Jack was emancipated, later became the wealthiest Black man in 19th-century North Carolina, and, ironically, may have been the largest slave owner in Craven County. He’ll tell of the deadly duel between Barber Jack’s white brother, Congressman John Stanly, and former North Carolina governor Richard Dobbs Spaight, whom Stanly shot and killed behind New Bern’s Masonic Hall in 1802.

Relating exciting tales from Southern history is not something that the Pennsylvania-born Woika, a former deputy city manager with a degree in environmental engineering, was trained to do. Nor is it something that he ever expected to be doing in his retirement years. It all started when he began digging into the history of his own home in New Bern — an elegant Queen Anne-style house on Johnson Street, built in 1894 by New Bern Chamber of Commerce head Charles Ives and his poet wife, Hannah. “My wife says the only reason I became a trolley tour guide is so I could talk about our house,” Woika says. “And there may be some truth to that.”

There’s a spiritual connection, he suggests, living in a house where people built lives and made families in an entirely different era, in a different world. “The experience of being in the same space that someone occupied more than a hundred years ago, who went up the same staircase, who walked the same floors, who probably complained about the same windows — I think that’s pretty cool,” he says.

While searching for old photos from the house’s earlier years, Woika tracked down some of the Iveses’ grandchildren, now in their late 80s and early 90s. Three of them— two from Raleigh and one from South Carolina — were so excited to hear from him that they drove all the way to New Bern to meet the Woikas. It was an emotional two-day experience. Each grandchild came with boxes of pictures and other memorabilia, including some original poetry written by their grandmother.

Most tales from the grave are reserved for Cedar Grove Cemetery. photograph by Baxter Miller

One day, they made a trip to Cedar Grove Cemetery, where 93-year-old grandson Charles Bryan, who’d lived in New Bern for the first 30 years of his life, located the graves of his parents and grandparents. “And as we were walking through,” Woika says, “he’d pass by other gravestones and go, ‘This guy was a doctor, very nice; he had an office on Pollock Street,’ and, ‘Oh, I knew this girl; she sat behind me in school.’ He was having the greatest time reminiscing, and I was having a great time just walking along and experiencing it with him.”

On the next trolley tour, Woika invited Bryan and his 88-year-old cousin, Charles Ives III, to come along. “And when we passed by our house,” Woika says, “I had the driver stop, and I introduced them to the other people on the tour. I said, ‘These are the grandsons of the person who built this house.’ And everybody clapped. It was wonderful.”

• • •

As today’s trolley lumbers back toward Tryon Palace — past St. Cyprian’s, one of the state’s oldest Black Episcopal churches; past Union Station and the Spanish moss-covered grounds of Christ Church; past downtown shops and restaurants and the drugstore where Caleb Bradham invented Pepsi — Woika drops old Barber Jack’s name one last time.

The tour through downtown New Bern features Christ Episcopal Church, originally built in 1824; and Caleb Bradham’s pharmacy, where he invented what would become Pepsi-Cola in 1893. photograph by Baxter Miller

As the passengers disembark, say their pleasantries, and go their separate ways, Woika gets philosophical about his new retirement gig. “One of the things that I try to do on these tours,” he says, “is talk about a character early on and then reintroduce them later on in ways that give a fuller story of these people and places.” He laughs. “If I were just reciting historical facts — like, that house is this many square feet, and it was built this many years ago — I don’t think it would be much fun for anybody. To me, the fun is in putting some faces, putting some feeling behind the brick and the wood.”

The trolley is sitting idle again, resting beneath that magnolia tree. Over the course of 90 minutes, Woika has woven names and places and events together into a tapestry that now feels almost three-dimensional. Old New Bern is new again.

New Bern Historic Trolley Tour
Departs from 610 Pollock Street
New Bern, NC 28560
(252) 637-7316