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The World According to

Laurence Sprunt

T

he afternoon visitor rang the doorbell three times and was just about to give up when he heard a friendly toot of a horn and turned to see a white SUV speeding around his parked car and over the lawn of the pretty Colonial on Country Club Drive. Laurence Sprunt gave a casual wave from the passenger seat as his effervescent daughter, Annie Gray Johnston, cheerfully called out, “Sorry we’re late! Be there in a second! Daddy had a lunch date!” A few minutes later, Laurence Sprunt settled in a comfy armchair and smiled over his glass of iced tea. “I had lunch with Nan Graham,” he explained. “She’s quite a lively talker and sure knows her history hereabouts.” “Funny,” his visitor observed, “she told me exactly the same thing about you. She said you are, in a way, Mr. Cape Fear.” Laurence Sprunt sighed. “I fear Nan Graham greatly exaggerates. By the way, it wasn’t a date per se. Most of the time I’m a happily married man, you see. My wife, Beth, and I have been married a long time.” “Fifty years this month,” provided Annie Gray, taking a seat opposite her father. “No, it’s not that long,” said Laurence with mock surprise, leaking another sly smile. “Yes it is,” said his daughter. “Daddy’s just being a devil. We’re actually having a fiftieth wedding anniversary party in a few weeks. It’s a big month for Daddy. He turns 87 in just a few days.” “Well,” Laurence informed his daughter, “your mother says she isn’t interested in coming. I’ll have to work on her to do so. You know how she is. Stubborn, that woman.” His gray eyes twinkled roguishly and he sipped his iced tea. It was clear Mr. Laurence Sprunt was having his visitor on. “Mama says she’ll only have to compete with Daddy for attention,” Annie Gray said. “How does it feel to be 87?” the visitor asked. Laurence Sprunt, noted local historian, naturalist, sportsman, raconteur, the last son of Orton Plantation and author of the most folksy and entertaining memoir in recent memory on Wilmington and Cape Fear life, grimaced. “Terrible! Everything aches. And worst of all, I have to have the women in my life drive me everywhere. They won’t let me out of their sight! I have to sneak away to have a good drink and play poker with my friends.” “You play poker?” “I do,” he confirmed. “I don’t do badly either, as a rule. Want to see my best poker face?” “Yes sir.” And with that, Laurence Sprunt stared blankly at his visitor for a long moment. 44

Salt • June 2014

“That’s quite a face,” his visitor agreed. “I can’t begin to tell what you’re thinking.” “Thank you. It’s a gift and very helpful. I use it on the women in my life all the time.” “Daddy is a born jokester,” said Annie Gray, shaking her head. Four years ago, a sea change in the cultural life of Wilmington and the Lower Cape Fear occurred when billionaire-hedge fund manager Louis Moore Bacon, a native of Raleigh, purchased historic Orton Plantation from Laurence Sprunt and his family for a reported $45 million. Soon afterward he announced plans to close the treasured property to the public for a comprehensive restoration of the house and gardens known to thousands of visitors, and newlyweds, launching a monumental effort to bring back surrounding longleaf forests and the plantation’s once fabled rice fields on the Cape Fear river plain. Bacon’s own ties to Orton go back to its establishment as a working plantation in the 18th century by his ancestor Roger Moore, one of eight lords proprietors granted the land by England’s King Charles II in America, who inherited the land from his brother, Maurice, after establishing Brunswick Town in 1726. Using slave labor, Moore cut down forests, dammed creeks and flooded fields to produce rice, turning Orton Plantation into the region’s most significant working plantation. Upon his death in 1750 he left the property, 250 slaves and hundreds of acres of rice to his son, who later sold the plantation to Richard Quince, one of the region’s most active merchants and traders and an active participant in the American Revolution. In 1796, Roger Moore’s grandson Benjamin Smith, a former aide-de-camp to George Washington who established the town of Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear, purchased Orton and ran it through his term as governor of North Carolina — though through costly mistakes in management and a dwindling rice market he lost his fortune and died a pauper, causing Orton to be sold on the auction block. Its next owner, Dr. Frederick Jones Hill, a grandson of Nathaniel Moore, finished the plantation’s neoclassical house and helped establish public education in the Cape Fear region. By the outbreak of the Civil War, Orton was in different hands and its fortunes were severely declining. On the brink of being abandoned, it was largely only saved by being appropriated by Union troops and used as a field hospital. In August 1872, Orton was again put on the auction block, though it didn’t sell. The property languished and decayed until a cotton and naval stores merchant and avid outdoorsman named Kenneth Murchison purchased the property, restoring the house and rice fields, and used it as his winter home until selling the plantation to James Sprunt. At 18 years of age, Sprunt served as a purser on several Confederate blockade runners and joined his father Alexander Sprunt’s cotton export business after the war. For a time, based out of Wilmington, the Sprunts operated the most successful cotton export business in the world. James Sprunt bought Orton as a wedding gift to his wife, Luola. The Art & Soul of Wilmington

photo stylist Danielle Boisse

By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Mark Steelman

June salt 2014  
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