LUMBERTON — The Robeson County History Museum is dedicated to unlocking the mysteries of our past. When the museum’s deed changed hands 18 months ago, its new trustees discovered there were unsolved mysteries inside the building.
The biggest mystery is a safe that came with the building. Why was it locked? How long has it been locked? How do you open it? And what’s inside this time capsule?
The History Museum’s new leader, Shep Oliver, loves local history, and he loves to solve a mystery. But there were many things to do from the time the Sharpe family transferred ownership of the building to the Historical Society before he could turn his attention to the safe.
Oliver, whose family has deep roots in the Marietta community of Robeson County, recently took over as president of the museum from Richard Monroe of Lumberton. Managing a museum with an all-volunteer staff is no simple task. Besides exhibits and special exhibitions, there is fundraising, grant writing, planning, recruiting volunteers and lots of coordinating.
Currently on display is an exhibit of two of Robeson County’s highest ranking military officers. They are Oliver’s late father, Maj. Gen. Paul Oliver, and retired Rear Adm. Cliff Sharpe. Sharpe’s family owned the museum from its inception in 1987.
In January, the museum will host a one-woman show by Pembroke artist Joan Blackwell. To display art, the museum acquired painting hangers that can be moved from room to room, saving the walls from unnecessary drilling.
Then, the museum needed an archive for storing artifacts not on display. A dehumidifier was installed in the basement and shelving is to come.
Then, there was the safe.
“It’s a real safe with 12-inch thick doors,” Oliver said of the gray monster. “It must weigh 1,600 pounds.”
As he slowly opened the doors, shelves and drawers with papers, boxes and other items were revealed.
“There is quite a lot in here, and I have not looked at all of it,” Oliver said. “When we inherited it, one of the doors was open, but you couldn’t put anything in or take anything out.”
The museum called on Scottie Jackson, owner of B&B Locksmith. He has been picking locks in Lumberton for more than 30 years.
“Scottie is a history buff, and he knows safes,” Oliver said.
Indeed, he does.
“I had to reach in and use the tips of my fingers to disassemble the lock from the inside,” Jackson said. “If that had failed, I would have had to drill the lock from the outside. That would have taken hours.”
Jackson estimates the safe to be 80 to 100 years old. With the doors open, the contents spilled out revealing more mysteries.
Among the contents are World War II photos of men, tanks and mules. There were postcards and a letter dated 2006, making it one of the most recent pieces inside.
There is a stock certificate for the Thompson Memorial Hospital in Lumberton dated 1926. A check for $1,100 drawn on the National Bank of Lumberton is dated 1959.
“That’s a lot of money back then,” Oliver said.
There was at least one surprising link to Oliver’s family. A diploma awarded to Kathleen Faulk from the Daniel-Carlisle Literary Society of Queens College in Charlotte was dated 1925.
Many county residents remember Faulk as the society reporter for The Robesonian. Oliver remembers her as Aunt Kathleen.
“There is a lot more that I have not touched,” Oliver said. “It drives me crazy to think how all this got in here.”
The craziest thing in the safe is a rusting handgun that was fully loaded.
“One of these shells is spent,” Oliver said.
The spent shell is one more mystery related to the safe, and untangling the mystery of the safe will take some time. Contacting its former owners is a start.
The Robeson County History Museum was founded by the late Jack Sharpe and his wife, Helen, around the time of the county’s bicentennial in 1987. The Sharpes, who owned The Robesonian with a brother and sister, had hoped to launch another newspaper from the building, which was known as the Southern Express Building.
Employees and visitors to the old The Robesonian office remember a large safe located behind the desk where Kathleen Faulk worked. However, that turned out to be a false lead, according to retired Rear Adm. Sharpe, son of Jack and Helen.
“Mother reports the larger safe was present in the building at the time she purchased the property,” Sharpe said. “It is not the old Robesonian safe.
“She remembers having the safe opened and holding the combination at one time — but can provide no specifics. She was surprised there was a gun in there.”
The reference to another, smaller, safe proved accurate. A visit to the basement archives revealed the smaller safe, which is empty. But the archives hold more mysteries, such as a Confederate dress uniform, old business ledgers and a photo of the White House that was given to the Associated Country Women of the World by President Franklin Roosevelt.
As the Robeson County History Museum enters its 30th year, there is more fun in store for those who love Robeson County’s history.