Hart Square village in Catawba County comes to life for one day

jdepriest@charlotteobserver.comOctober 26, 2013 

— The fourth Saturday in October is always the most exciting time of the year for Bob Hart, so much so that he can hardly sleep.

At 10 a.m., an antique bell rings on his property in rural Vale and the general public is admitted for one day only to Hart Square, an 18th century village he created from abandoned log buildings scattered about the Catawba Valley.

A semiretired doctor, Hart, 77, of Hickory has spent 40 years in pursuit of the hobby that has turned into the largest collection of original historic log buildings in the country. For him, the village 45 miles northwest of Charlotte offers visitors the opportunity to step back in time. Additionally, as he sees youngsters come to the village, he feels good knowing he’s helping educate future generations.

“I call the village my passion,” Hart said. “My wife calls it an obsession.”

The one-day festival is a popular event that attracts visitors from as far away as California and Hawaii, but it’s little known by many in the Charlotte region.

All the buildings came from about a 25-mile radius of Hart Square. Hart purchased some of them, but he said most were donated. He took the structures apart, hauled them back to his farm and reassembled them.

Tickets for Saturday’s 28th annual festival were available on Oct. 1 through the Catawba County Historical Association and sold out within hours. Nearly 4,000 people from all over the U.S. came out to tour the 200-acre complex. Hart Square has 97 buildings and more than 70 log structures, which date from 1782 to 1873. Rustic interiors have period furnishings, which also help take visitors back in time.

Making history come alive on festival day were 350 artisans in 18th-century dress. Scattered around the grounds, they gave demonstrations in ham smoking, corn shucking, herbal medicine, woodcarving, pottery making, molasses making, butter churning, cabinet making, peanut boiling, mule-powered cotton ginning, pumpkin carving and more.

The artisan lineup also included two reality TV celebrities: Gastonia native Eustace Conway from The History Channel’s “Mountain Men” show and Spencer “Two Dogs” Bolejack from Destination America Channel’s “Hillbilly Blood.”

Hart seemed to be everywhere – either on foot or in a golf cart – taking care of details, speaking to longtime festivalgoers and greeting first-time visitors.

The property his family calls “the farm” was purchased by Hart in the late 1960s as a nature preserve.

A friend then suggested a log cabin would look good there and knew of one that was available. The two of them moved it, and a few months later the same friend mentioned that a barn also would be nice on the property.

Hart agreed. “And things just mushroomed,” he said.

Family affair

A native of Greenwood, S.C., Hart was a Marine fighter pilot and went to medical school in Charleston. He and his wife, Becky, and two sons, Eric and Keith, moved to Hickory in 1967.

As Hart Square took shape, the project became a family affair.

“We used to hunt and fish here as children,” said Eric Hart, who is a family physician. “We camped out in cabins and had the most incredible birthday parties. We helped dad move things, but he’s pretty focused. We call him Energizer Bunny – he runs from place to place.”

Tickets for the festival sold for $35 each. Hart said proceeds go to the Catawba County Historical Association and the Hart Square Foundation to maintain the village’s sustainability.

On Saturday, James and Carolyn Cox were among a group from Harnett County touring Hart Square.

“I love old buildings and bridges,” said James Cox, 65, a retired middle school teacher. “I think we’ve lost something of what we had. If you gave any contractor an ax, hammer and saw and that’s it, what could they do?”

At the Hart Square Jail, former Catawba County Sheriff David Huffman stood outside in boots, dressed in black and wearing a replica of a 19th-century lawman’s hat.

It was his 28th year helping out at the festival.

“You see the same people,” said Huffman, who is executive director of the Governor’s Crime Commission in Raleigh. “And they tell friends and bring some back with them. Hart Square is the best kept secret in Catawba County.”

Coming to life

Travis and Jo Schmuker of Hickory brought their children: Sadie and Tate, both 3, and Finley, 2.

“We want to show our kids how things were done back then,” said Travis Schmuker, 32. “We want them to see how people worked and dressed, and how they lived and survived.”

Hart Square reminded Chapel Hill residents Chris and Betsy Newlon of the Gene Kelly musical “Brigadoon” about a magic city in Scotland that came to life for one day every 100 years.

“This is a glimpse into the past,” Betsy Newlon said of the village. “We’re both history buffs. We love reading. We love books. But seeing it come to life here is quite an experience.”

DePriest: 704-868-7745

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