WILMINGTON — Nearly a year after most of them shut down during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the area’s historic sites are gearing up to make the most of what is likely to be another unprecedented tourist season.
Places like Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson and Fort Fisher state historic sites, and historic homes like Bellamy Mansion and Burgwin-Wright, are all prepping new programs, revamped layouts and jam-packed calendars of socially safe events to welcome those looking to get back out in the world after last summer spent at home.
The staff at Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson is hacking away at some of the overgrown portions of its 120-acre site in Winnabow to revive a few nature trails that will give visitors a new perspective of the dual Revolutionary War and Civil War site.
“We’re trying to rebuild the old nature trails and put in new nature trails,” said site manager Jim McKee. “We have 120 acres, but only about 40 acres is accessible and seen by the public. There are some beautiful, drop dead gorgeous viewscapes out here in the woods and this is us trying to open them up a bit.”
McKee said they hope to have the first new section of trails open by mid-April, which would be north of the parking lot between the main site and preserved foundation of the colonial Russelborough home site.
The site is also debuting a few new exhibits to encourage locals and tourists to make the trek out to Brunswick County, including insightful new 3-D models of St. Philips Church as it would have looked before the American Revolution.
“We’re going to have another new exhibit based on Fort Anderson highlighting it as a quarantine fort,” McKee said. “It is really the only thing that is completely born out of COVID because it allows us to tell how the fort’s primary purpose was the quarantine station along the Cape Fear River. So it is totally appropriate for the time.”
Across the river at Fort Fisher State Historic Site, educator John Moseley said they launched a new exhibit on the role and experience of African Americans at the Civil War and World War II last March just days before it closed down.
“It is still up and, in most cases, it is an exhibit most people haven’t seen before,” Moseley said. “We hope people will come check it out. We have also been fundraising for a new building and this exhibit is talking about some of the stuff we are working on in the grander scheme of things.”
The site, like most, is still in a bit of a holding pattern as it waits for directives from the state regarding gathering size restrictions as COVID-19 cases decline but the risk remains high as the nation waits to be vaccinated.
“We are waiting on those state regulations, but we really hope to kick off programming in June with our artillery programs,” he added.
Back in Wilmington, the Burgwin-Wright House & Gardens missed out on celebrating its 250th anniversary last year, so it’s not wasting a day in commemorating — at least virtually — its 70th anniversary as a museum.
Museum director Christine Lamberton said the staff is currently in the middle of a virtual series on its gardens and preparing for the return of its spring and summer markets.
Lamberton said new this summer will be the twice-weekly nighttime tours of the colonial home at Third and Market streets, as well as the debut of two walking tours — including one centered on original homeowner John Burgwin’s connection to the “Outlander” book and TV series.
They have also been working on an exhibit detailing the role of African American enslaved people who lived and worked at the home.
While all the events are intended to court the tourists that always seek out the house, Lamberton said they also want to use the gradually relaxing COVID-19 restrictions to relaunch some of their tried-and-true events beloved by the local community.
“We just want the local community to know that we have a lot to offer every month for them,” she said. “We want them to come back and know they can depend on us for these events.”
Bellamy Mansion Museum is hoping for a similar reintroduction with local residents, as director Gareth Evans said they plan to relaunch the Summer Jazz Series outdoors on the Second Thursdays of each month May through September.
They’ve also reinstated art shows, minus the food and drink, where guests can walk the house at Fifth and Market streets admiring the work of local artists, who will be on hand.
“There are going to be smaller things we will try and then ramp up to bigger things in the summer and fall,” he said. “Like everyone, I think we are just hoping there is a pent up demand and everyone will come out.”
Other area historic sites are also poised to come back on line in the coming weeks.
Old Baldy Lighthouse on Bald Head Lighthouse will reopen its gift shop and again allow guests to climb the tower starting March 11, operating 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through March.
The Latimer House has also resumed more tour hours after completing its COVID-19 training to become a CountOnMeNC business. Tours are now offered 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.
All of the plans by area historic sites are intended to harness what promises to be a busy season as people prepare to find some sort of normalcy in the warmer weather.
But it all starts locally, with the people who don’t have to travel hours to reap the benefits of living in a region rich with history.
“We’ve already started to see an uptick in locals who recognize there is stuff to do here, right now,” Lamberton said. “Especially now, I think they realize they don’t have to wait for friends or relatives to visit to be tourists in their own town.”