New Bern is the second-oldest European-American colonial town in North Carolina after Bath. It served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government, then briefly as the state capital. After the American Revolution, New Bern became wealthy and quickly developed a rich cultural life. At one time, New Bern was called “the Athens of the South,” renowned for its Masonic Temple and Athens Theater. These are both still very active today.
New Bern has four historic districts listed on the National Register of Historic Places; their numerous contributing buildings include residences, stores and churches dating back to the early eighteenth century. Within easy walking distance of the waterfront are more than 164 homes and buildings listed on the National Register. Also, nearby are several bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants, banks, antiques stores and specialty shops. The historic districts contain many of the city’s 2,000 crape myrtles—its official flower—and developed gardens. New Bern has two “Local Historic Districts,” a municipal zoning overlay that affords legal protection to the exteriors of New Bern’s irreplaceable historic structures. These areas provide much of New Bern’s unique charm, appeal to retirees and heritage tourism, and contribute to the city’s economic success. The Local Historic Districts, while vitally important to New Bern, comprise only 2.43% of New Bern’s 27-square-mile area. There is considerable area available for new development.
Tryon Palace Governor’s Mansion
Tryon Palace was the site of the first sessions of the general assembly for the State of North Carolina following the revolution and housed the state governors until 1794. In 1798, fire destroyed the original Palace building. An extensive 30-year campaign to rebuild the Palace and restore the grounds was launched by the people of New Bern, state leaders, world craftsmen, and generous, dedicated citizens such as Mrs. James Edwin Latham. Their efforts led to the triumphal reopening of the Palace in 1959. Today, the Palace lives on as a testament to history, community and rebirth.
During the 19th-century Federal period, New Bern became the largest city in North Carolina, developed on the trade of goods and slaves associated with plantation agriculture. After Raleigh was named the state capital, New Bern rebuilt its economy by expanding on trade via shipping routes to the Caribbean and New England. It was part of the Triangle Trade in sugar, slaves and desired goods. It reached a population of 3,600 in 1815.
Civil War Battle of New Bern
After the January 1863 Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, slaves in Union-occupied territories were declared free; more freedmen came to the Trent River camp for protection. The Army appointed Horace James, a Congregational chaplain from Massachusetts, as the “Superintendent of Negro Affairs for the North Carolina District.” In addition to the Trent River camp, James supervised development of the offshore Roanoke Island Freedmen’s Colony, which was intended to be self-supporting. Beginning in 1863, a total of nearly 4,000 freedmen from North Carolina enlisted in the United States Colored Troops to fight with the Union for their permanent freedom, including 150 men from the colony on Roanoke Island.
Due to the continuous occupation by the Union troops, New Bern avoided some of the destruction of the war years. There was much social disruption because of the occupation and the thousands of freedmen camped near the city. Still, it recovered more quickly than many cities after the war.
The lumber industry becomes cornerstone of economy
The state legislature defined the city and county as part of North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district which, as former plantation territory, held a concentration of the state’s black residents. They elected four blacks to the US Congress in the late 19th century. The state’s passage of a constitutional suffrage amendment in 1900 used various devices to disenfranchise black citizens. As a result, they were totally closed out of the political process, including participation on juries and in local offices; white Democrats maintained this suppression mostly, until after passage of federal civil rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which provided for federal enforcement of constitutional rights.
By 1890 New Bern had become the largest lumber center in North Carolina and one of the largest in all of the South. During this time, as many as 16 lumber mills were running and employing hundreds of men from New Bern and the area. The competitive nature of the lumber barons, the abundance of lumber and craftsmen, led to the construction in New Bern of some of the finest homes in the South, many of which have survived. The lumber boom lasted until the 1920s. One by one the lumber mills went out of business. Today only Weyerhaeuser manufactures lumber in the area.
Pepsi-Cola is born
On August 28, 1898, Bradham renamed his drink “Pepsi-Cola.” He believed the drink was more than a refreshment but a “healthy” cola, aiding in digestion, getting its roots from the word dyspepsia, meaning indigestion.
In late 1902, the Pepsi-Cola Company was formed due to the rising popularity and demand for the Pepsi-Cola Syrup with none other than Caleb Bradham as the first president. The business began to grow, and on June 16, 1903, “Pepsi-Cola” became an official trademark. By 1904, the Pepsi-Cola Syrup sales reached almost 20,000 gallons. As demand for the drink continued to rise, Bradham decided it was time to offer Pepsi-Cola in bottles. By 1910 there were 240 franchises in 24 states and that year the Pepsi-Cola Company held their first Bottler Convention in New Bern.
Hard times fell on Bradham and the Pepsi-Cola franchise during WWI. This was due to the high price and severe rationing of sugar. This rationing prevented Pepsi-Cola from producing enough syrup to meet the demands of consumers. Though Bradham attempted multiple substitutes for sugar, like molasses, the outcome was always an inferior taste to the original. After the war ended sugar prices soared from 3 cents to 28 cents per pound. Bradham purchased a large quantity of the high-priced sugar, which would be a factor to the company’s downfall. Pepsi Cola officially was bankrupt as of May 31,1923, and its assets were sold to Craven Holding Corporation for $30,000.
After years of ups and downs, PepsiCo is now back on top. In 2013, Pepsi was ranked #1 on CoreBrands’s list of Most Respected Companies. The company was also ranked #41 on the Fortune 500 list, in 2012.
Union Point Park
In 2005, a segment of NBC’s The Today Show noted that New Bern was one of the best places in the United States to retire. Retirees from the northern states have added to its population.