State park’s creator recalls the 50-year-old effort to preserve Raven Rock land

Posted 9/6/19

PITTSBORO — Growing up in the rural Cabarrus County town of Midland, the nearby Rocky River his childhood playground, Dr. Robert Soots developed an early and lasting love and respect for the wild …

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State park’s creator recalls the 50-year-old effort to preserve Raven Rock land

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PITTSBORO — Growing up in the rural Cabarrus County town of Midland, the nearby Rocky River his childhood playground, Dr. Robert Soots developed an early and lasting love and respect for the wild world around him.

“I was always interested in nature,” said the retired professor of biology.

His mother, too, was influential, her values helping shape the young boy’s views of the natural world and its many and varied inhabitants.

She, for instance, warned him and his siblings never to aim their air rifles — every boy had one at the time — at a bird.

“‘You don’t kill them,’ she told us. ‘They’re a thing of beauty and if you ever shoot one of those birds, you’re going to be in trouble,’” Soots recalled. “Her idea was more to protect nature and not abuse it. That had a big influence on me.”

Now 85 and retired and living with his wife Sharron in Pittsboro, Soots’ love of nature hasn’t diminished. It remains close as he sits at the desk in the tidy office space in his home, where he’s discussing his work as a biologist and ecologist and the many hours he logged in the late 1960s as the primary force behind the creation of Raven Rock State Park in Harnett County.

A large window to the rear of the desk offers an eye-pleasing view of lush green woods; just beyond the window pane, a hummingbird hovers at a hanging feeder as another bird’s voice sounds in the nearby distance.

“That’s a red-shouldered hawk,” said Soots, identifying the sound.

His office decor reveals more.

“Look around,” he said, “and you see all kinds of mementos about Raven Rock.”

A couple of framed pictures of the park adorn a wall. One captures an image of the popular hiking destination, a rock formation illuminated by a burst of golden sunlight. The screensaver on his desktop computer monitor features another colorful, autumnal view of the park, the Cape Fear River winding toward a fiery horizon.

“That’s one of my favorite places,” Soots said.

Another picture on the wall is pivotal to the Raven Rock story, though the park itself is nowhere to be seen. Instead, it’s a framed black-and-white photo, taken indoors in March 1970, of four neatly-dressed men standing side by side, their collective focus a piece of paper. The men are Soots, then-Governor Robert Scott, then-State Attorney General Robert Morgan and Bill Johnston, who was a member of the committee formed in the late 60s for the advocacy and creation of Raven Rock State Park. The paper in their hands is the deed to 221 acres of land near Lillington that would soon become the state park.

But that’s jumping ahead of the story.

Before those men at the highest level of state government convened for the celebratory photograph, there was a lot of work to be done.

It really started when Soots accepted a teaching position at what’s now Campbell University, the private school in Buies Creek.

Fresh out of the Army, which he’d joined wanting to travel though he only traveled as far as Georgia for basic training, Soots considered extending his military career with Officer Training School. But a friend, realizing Soots’ interest in environmental matters, suggested he follow a different path.

His friend suggested N.C. State University, where Soots could “get an education in an environmental field. And that’s what I did,” earning a degree in Wildlife Conservation Management.

“I wanted to do something where I was going to be protecting and conserving something,” he said.

Working as a paid research biologist at N.C. State while simultaneously earning a master’s degree, Soots applied for a job with the National Parks Service. Weeks went by without any reply.

Not realizing at the time how slowly the gears of federal government sometimes turn, he gave up hope for the parks position he sought and, at the suggestion of another friend who’d recently left a teaching post at Campbell University, Soots was hired at the university to teach biology.

“I had never in my life considered being a college professor,” he said. “But I’m one of those people that jumps into things sometimes.”

Never mind that soon after taking the teaching job several offers for employment from the feds poured in.

But he turned out to be a good fit at Campbell and stayed there until 1980, becoming head of the school’s biology department.

It was while teaching a course on invertebrates’ natural history at Campbell in the mid-60s that Soots first became acquainted with Raven Rock.

Soots needed a place — outside the classroom, in the field — to teach the laboratory portion of the class and he found Raven Rock, a “reasonable driving distance from Buies Creek,” met his needs.

“I did a lot of teaching right on sight,” he said. “I just really loved the area.”

Seeking permission to access the area for his classes, Soots had gotten to know some of the landowners. One — he calls her “Miss Lizzy” — became a good friend. She lived alone — she’d never married — on the several hundred acres she owned along the Cape Fear River and she often had Soots and his wife, Sharron, over for meals or to help in the garden or just to hang out.

“She was really just lonely,” said Soots.

The professor was helping Miss Lizzy, a short woman, pick out-of-her-reach figs from one of her fig trees one afternoon when she voiced words that set in motion work on the future state park.

“She said, ‘Bob, I’m considering selling my property,’” Soots recalled. “I said, ‘Miss Lizzy, who are you going to sell it to?”

Owners of a nearby rock quarry, she replied, were interested in buying her acreage “to do some mining.”

“I said, ‘Miss Lizzy, that land should never be torn up like that,’” Soots recalled the pivotal conversation. “I said, ‘Would you consider holding up on that and let me see if I can get that converted into a state park?’ I had not ever considered it up until that point...But that initiated the rest of it. That was the starting point.”

He soon visited other nearby landowners, floating the idea and testing the waters, and “without exception, everybody said they would sell their property for the state park, if we could make it happen. I made it clear to them there was no guarantee I could accomplish this, but I’d try.”

Next, Soots sketched out a plan and took it to the Harnett County Board of Commissioners, showing them slides of the beautiful area and discussing “why we ought to make this happen.”

His proposal for a state park was bolstered by a report circulating at the time that there were no state parks in the area.

“So there was a need,” Soots said.

The county commissioners, hearing his plea and viewing his slides of the natural area, “were totally behind it,” Soots said.

Next, he worked to get the public to embrace it, too, logging a lot of miles and talking to a lot of people about the plan.

“I gave I don’t know how many talks,” Soots said, “to get people to encourage their legislators to approve the state funding for the park. I went to every group I could. Town boards and every garden club, bird club, the Boy Scouts. And I got a tremendous amount of support from the people, from Lee County as well as Harnett County.”

Even Lillington native Paul Green, well-known author of the still-in-production outdoor drama “The Lost Colony,” lent his support to the cause, sending Soots a hand-written note offering his help.

Robert Morgan, “a senator, and a very powerful one, at that,” Soots said, also embraced the plan. “He worked very hard, getting the political people involved,” said Soots, “and he was quite successful.”

Following months of hard work, in 1969, Raven Rock State Park was created with the passage and adoption of North Carolina Senate Bill 495.

Today, Raven Rock State Park, which covers 4,810 acres along the Cape Fear River’s banks, is a popular destination for hikers, campers, anglers and canoeists, drawing thousands of visitors ever month The park also boasts horseback riding trails.

For his vision and his work in creating Raven Rock State Park, Soots will take part in an upcoming event celebrating Raven Rock’s 50th anniversary.

From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14, the visitor’s center at the park will be the site of the Raven Rock Festival, a celebration of the history of the park and its creator.

Several speakers will discuss the park’s history. There will also be musical entertainment courtesy of regional talent, and throughout the five-hour event, an artists village, food trucks, games and other activities will be offered. Guided nature hikes along the Cape Fear River are also planned. More information on the event is available at ravenrockfestival.org.

Among those who will take part in the upcoming event is Dr. John Bartlett, Associate Professor of Biology at Campbell University.

“Part of this event is just getting people excited about Raven Rock,” Bartlett said. “It’s a celebration of the park and the people who made it happen.”

Of the man whose work helped create a state park and spare hundreds of acres from a potentially much different future, Bartlett is clear.

“I think Bob Soots is a hero,” Bartlett said. “He’s a visionary and he was way out ahead of his time on things.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at rigsbee@chathamnr.com.

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