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Mason Farm Celebration
by
Gerry Gurevich

The entrance to the Mason Farm Biological Reserve is not particularly inviting. A gravel road leads out from the Club House at Finley Golf Course and runs uncomfortably close to the driving range. It follows the path of Morgan Creek to a concrete dam where you can cross if you dare. Six times a year it's not safe for vehicles because of high water flowing over the top of the dam. But that's the only way for a visitor to enter the Biological Reserve.

"That suits us fine," said Charlotte Jones-Roe, assistant Director of the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. "This is not a park."

But on Friday, April 26, weather and Morgan Creek permitting, the reserve will be open to all comers as part of the Mason Farm Celebration at the North Carolina Botanical Gardens.

It was one hundred and one years ago that the Mary Elizabeth Morgan Mason passed away. Her husband, The Reverend James Pleasant Mason had died eleven months earlier. Their will left an 800 acre plantation to the University of North Carolina in the names of their two daughters Martha James and Varina Caroline who had died of Typhoid Fever. Three conditions were attached to the gift -- $15 per year should be spent to keep up the Mason Family graveyard, the land could not be split up, and portraits of the two girls should be painted from the old family photographs and hung within the halls of the university.

Although the land is still together in a single parcel, there are many different uses of the tract. Mason Farm is the home of the North Carolina Botanical Garden. It also houses the University's Finley Golf Course, the Ronald McDonald House, fraternity houses and University offices along Finley Golf Course Road, Orange Water and Sewer Authority facilities, the University's Mason Farm Wastewater Research Center and a portion of the William and Ada Friday Continuing Education center.

The most storied portion of the land, and the largest, is the Mason Farm Biological Reserve, administered by the North Carolina Botanical Garden. It was made nationally famous by former Audubon Society editor and author John K. Terres in his book From Laurel Hill to Siler's Bog.

Although the general public can visit the Reserve throughout the year, a permit is required. Researchers and administrators don't want the Reserve to become as heavily used as Duke Forest.

"Duke Forest is being loved to death," said Jones-Roe.

The Biological Reserve is a place of serious research and study. In the 1930's a number of sites were used to test soil conservation methods. Today, classes from UNC visit the site to learn about the growth and change of the forest. And a number of UNC researchers use the site for ongoing research projects. Eighteen of these projects have resulted in Doctoral theses. Quiet is essential for some of the current acoustical research.

The Mason Farm Celebration begins at 1:00 PM at the Totten Center, which is the visitor center for the North Carolina Botanical Gardens. University officials and Garden staff will pay tribute to the members of the Mason and Morgan families. In addition to the Mason Farm, earlier generations of the Morgan family donated many of the acres that constitute the current Chapel Hill campus. Although Mary Elizabeth and James Pleasant Mason had no surviving family, the descendants of their nieces and nephews, and members of the Mason family who were descended from slaves that worked on the farm will be on hand for the tribute.

If weather permits, and Morgan Creek isn't too high over the dam, a caravan will cross into the Biological Reserve's fenced area for a tribute to Dr. Terres. Immediately following, guided hikes will be offered.

  • Morgan Home site Hike -- UNC Archaeologist Traywick Ward and NCBG Assistant Director Charlotte Jones-Roe will lead a fairly strenuous 1 mile hike past the Rhododendron Bluffs, boundary Post Oak trees, loop around the pond and the Carolina Shagbark Hickory community
  • Big Oak Woods Hike -- NCBG Director Peter White will lead a moderately strenuous 2.5 mile hike through the best remaining example of a Piedmont swamp forest and the National Champion Carolina Shagbark Hickory.
  • Yancey Brook Hike -- UNC Professor of Biology Haven Wiley will lead a strenuous 1-mile hike into the heart of the Carolina Shagbark Hickory woods and discuss the longest running breeding bird survey in the Southeast.
  • Hackberry Warbler Trail and Mason-Morgan Cemetery -- NCBG Volunteers Libby and George McLellan and Barbara Roth will lead a fairly level 1/2-mile hike through mature floodplain forest with views of the Rhododendron Bluff and a stop at the family cemetery.
  • Botanical Garden Nature Trails -- These self guided trails feature common trees and several major plant communities of the Piedmont.

At 4:00 PM there will be a reception back at the Totten Center. This will be an opportunity to meet special guests, view the famous portraits, and visit the Botanical Garden's new plantings.

It will also be an opportunity to tell stories about Mason Farm. The Southern Oral History Project will have tape recorders set up all afternoon. People with stories to tell are encouraged to come.

"This is a once in a century event," said Jones-Roe.

It will be a chance to pay tribute to an important North Carolina family and to visit, in the words of John Terres, "a land where the fields and woods are in balance and the numbers and varieties of its wild things reach their richest and fullest expression."

 
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