Stories are important to James Hardison. He owns a farm of cattle, trees and “semi-organic” vegetables, but he considers himself a historian of the town of Arapahoe and can often be found collecting audio recordings of stories told by members of the community. Most people know him by his nickname, “Bossy.”
When he was 12 years old and a Boy Scout, a woman named Louise Hardison from Texas gave him 5 dollars to help her find every Hardison he could through research. He is now 70 years old and has never stopped researching Hardisons or the land they are connected to.
He meets me on his 320-acre property next to a stand where he sells vegetables on the honor system. It is a cold gray day.
“I’m going to take you through hundreds of years of history quickly. Let me know if it’s too much,” he tells me. “I’ve learned that just because something is a document doesn’t mean it’s the truth, and just because something is folklore, it doesn’t mean it’s not true.”
He starts our walking tour with a visit to the sixth-generation Hardison family cemetery, where 62 headstones memorialize members of the Hardison, Lee and Brinson families, including Bossy’s great-great-uncle William Perkins Hardison, who died during the Civil War.
“I found him in Richmond in a mass grave. He died of gangrene after he was shot in the elbow. Someone wrote ‘Harding’ instead of ‘Hardison.’ I fought to get him here,” he says. “They wouldn’t let me dig him up to bring him home, so we put up a tombstone and had a memorial service with a 21-gun salute.”
“People don’t understand what the Civil War was like,” Bossy says, trying to explain why honoring a Confederate soldier from his family was important to him and not a political act. “People were starving. And if you didn’t fight, you were killed. Nineteen people from here were hung for treason for not fighting.”
We walk to his brick home. It faces Highway 306, which runs from across the Neuse River through Arapahoe via the Minnesott Beach ferry and past his property, across Highway 55 and then farther north.
“They say 306 was a trail for Indians,” he says. He wishes he knew more about the American Indian existence here. “I hate it when they change the name of roads. This road has gone from a trail to Pantico Road to Pamlico Road to Point Road. Changing the name changes the history. It’s difficult to research.”
Inside his house, he hands me a 1848 Civil War pistol and shows me letters and ledgers, mostly inherited from his great-grandmother who was a genealogist. The papers are perfectly laminated by his wife, Pam Hardison.
“She is the organized one,” Bossy says.
He tells me about John Hardison, his great-uncle. In 1918, four of his children, all under the age of 12, died of the Spanish flu.
“During the Spanish flu people stayed locked up in their houses because of fear,” he says. “It was told that the Arapahoe undertaker had a horse and wagon stacked full of coffins. The people in the houses would look to see which neighbor’s house they dropped the coffin off in front of and guess who died.”
Bossy gets up from his rocking chair and puts on his ball cap. It’s time to feed the cows. He does this three times a day in the winter.
We walk behind his house to the farm. He calls the cows, and they slowly make their way to where he spreads Bermuda hay on a damp field. They are surrounded by long leaf pine trees and thin wire fences. He tells me about Vietnam.
“I wanted to fight,” he says. “I wanted to be a Green Beret. I made it through paratrooper and Green Beret training, but the Army sent me to paradise: Panama.”
He takes me deeper into his farm, past ponds for irrigation, watering livestock and fishing. We disturb a group of ducks and listen to them flap their wings against the water to fly away.
His forested trail opens onto a large field where he was taught farming. His dog runs ahead. “I learned to drive a tractor right here when I was 5,” he tells me.
“Dawson Creek used to have a wooden bridge. Later, when it was concrete, I lost my best friend there,” he says, pointing to the other side of the field, in the direction of Dawson Creek. Douglas Boyd drowned at the end of Bossy’s sophomore year, in 1967. A strong current runs through the creek under the bridge. “Many in the county learned to swim there; many drowned there too.”
He watches what is left of the cloudy sky behind the trees. The cold wind turns his face red. His hands are deep in his coat pockets.
“Young people around here, they get bored. They say there is nothing to do,” he says. “I don’t understand.”
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