By Ben Swenson/Correspondent
There are some people who take a stand in life. There are others who take distributor caps. Carolista Fletcher Baum took both.
Baum is one of the primary reasons that today’s visitors to Jockey’s Ridge State Park can scale the East Coast’s largest living sand dune. Last year, the state park welcomed a record-setting 1.9 million visitors. Baum could not have imagined such popularity on the day back in 1973 when her kids scrambled down the sand to tell her a bulldozer was starting in on her beloved Jockey’s Ridge.
For centuries, Jockey’s Ridge has been a curiosity, a quirky natural feature that was part of the landscape. Geologists believe that it formed some 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. The dune slowly amassed to more than 100 feet, making it one of the Outer Banks’ highest points. Seafarers once used Jockey’s Ridge as a landmark, and the constantly moving mound of sand has covered a mini-golf course, a hotel, and houses over time.
But something had changed by the 1970s that put Jockey’s Ridge, residential development, and Carolista Fletcher Baum on a collision course.
The Outer Banks was no longer the remote and difficult-to-access destination that had largely kept residents and vacationers at bay. Development in the town of Nags Head began to creep closer to Jockey’s Ridge, alarming the locals who understood what a natural treasure they had on hand.
Baum refused to see part of Jockey’s Ridge destroyed when there was ample room to grow elsewhere. And that’s why she placed herself in the path of the bulldozer that fateful summer day.
“We were playing on the dunes that day, just like we did every day,” says Carolista’s daughter Ann-Cabell Baum, now a Raleigh Realtor. Carolista also had one other daughter and a son. “And, lo and behold, one day there was a dozer. We reported back, and our mom marched over there and stood right in front.”
The heavy equipment operator abandoned the day’s work. That evening, Baum took the distributor caps from all the earthmoving equipment, rendering them inoperable. This led to many subsequent successes that ultimately climaxed in a resounding series of victories.
The bulldozer incident ignited a fire in Baum, according to Joy Greenwood, superintendent of Jockey’s Ridge State Park, and similarly affected other conservation-minded locals, too. “There was a lot of interest in preservation in this community in the 1970s,” Greenwood says.
Others who recognized the worth in setting aside Jockey’s Ridge for future generations included then-mayor of Nags Head, Carl Nunemaker, former North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges, and respected author and historian David Stick. Their goal eventually became protecting Jockey’s Ridge through government backing.
Among them all, Baum “was the squeaky wheel who could get the grease,” Greenwood says. Headstrong and persuasive, Baum launched into all the laborious but necessary requirements for policymakers to take notice. Namely, preserving Jockey’s Ridge needed money and attention. She organized a group called People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge and served as the president.
Within two weeks of launching the campaign, backers had collected some 25,000 signatures in support of saving Jockey’s Ridge, largely thanks to Baum’s grit. The population of the northern Outer Banks was only around 6,000 at the time. “She drove all over eastern North Carolina collecting signatures,” Greenwood says. “This was long before the internet, where you could click a button.”
The group also needed funds to purchase the threatened acreage and protect it from destruction. For the fundraising effort, Baum devised a plan that gave donors and other stakeholders a sense of ownership of the massive dunes.
“BUY A PIECE OF THE RIDGE,” encouraged a hand-painted sign that stood outside a hot-pink hut that was the pulsing heart of the drive. “For a $5.00 donation, you can be an honorary owner of a square foot of Jockey’s Ridge and receive a commemorative certificate and gift.”
People gladly bought their own little honorary piece of the landmark, and with it, bumper stickers and T-shirts that pleaded with observers to save the sand dune.
Baum made phone calls and penned letters. When the General Assembly of North Carolina met, she drove from Nags Head to Raleigh every day for three weeks. Ultimately, People to Preserve Jockey’s Ridge delivered 50,000 signatures and a respectable amount of money that helped offset the purchase of the land.
In 1975, state legislators agreed to purchase 152 acres to create Jockey’s Ridge State Park. It has since tripled in size to 426 acres. Today, it’s the Tarheel State’s most visited state park.
Although Baum died in 1991, park officials pay homage to her remarkable achievements at the Visitor Center, at the northeastern foot of Jockey’s Ridge. A framed, painted portrait of her hangs inside. The original sign encouraging people to pitch in and buy a piece of Jockey’s Ridge is on display. Even the road leading to the Visitor Center is named Carolista Drive.
The Visitor Center will close for renovation from late May through Spring 2022, which will incorporate a few more Baum mementos when it reopens. And that’s appropriate, because like the wind and waves that created Jockey’s Ridge millennia ago, Baum had an outsized influence on this tiny piece of the world.
“Our mom was a real bulldog when there was something that needed attention,” says Baum. “Her preservation of Jockey’s Ridge was a hard-fought victory, and she was proud to be a part and have the gumption to get it done.”