Those who have seen the movie remember that every hundred years the small Scottish village appears out of the mist for one day. Well in Robeson County we have an area that I have named Brigadoon. It is the McAlpin-McNair Cemetery and at first thought you must be thinking how can a cemetery appear and disappear. The answer is plain and simple neglect – over the years the cemetery as become so overgrown that the twenty foot tall main monument erected in memory of Duncan and Catherine McNair could not even be seen. The McNairs and their monument are an interesting part of Robeson County’s history.
Duncan McNair and his wife, Catherine McCallum McNair, along with their young son, John, traveled from Kentyre, Argyleshire, Scotland in June 1786 and settled in the area of Bladen County that would become St. Pauls about a mile west of the Stage Road. Less than a year after they arrived Robeson County was created by splitting off part of Bladen County and naming it in honor of Col. Thomas Robeson the hero of the Revolutionary Battle of Elizabethtown.
Duncan McNair found himself surrounded by many like minded Scottish emigrants desiring to participate in Presbyterian worship but commuting to the nearest church in Fayetteville was out of the question for most families. Plans were made to form a local congregation and the St. Pauls Presbyterian Church was founded in 1799. The Rev. Daniel Brown preached the first sermon and was the supply pastor for about one year and McNair was elected the first Ruling Elder. The area around the St. Pauls Presbyterian Church began to organize into a community and in the 1830s the post office took the name St. Pauls after the church thus the founding of the church lead to the creation of the present Town of St. Pauls.
The McNairs had four sons Malcom, John, Robert and Duncan and two daughters Polly and Catherine. Malcom married Margaret Dalrymple, John married Polly Graham, Robert married Elizabeth Patterson and Duncan married Elizabeth McNair. Daughter Polly married Neil McArthur and Catherine married Neill McGeachy. Their descendants have gone forth to be soldiers, pastors, business leaders and politicians serving not only St. Pauls and Robeson County but all across the United States. Twenty-seven young men of the family served in the Confederate Army with only four losing their life during the fighting.
John Calvin McNair, the McNair’s grandson through Malcom and Margaret Dalrymple McNair, graduated in 1849 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and became a schoolmaster teaching for a while at the Robeson Institute in St. Pauls. After his brother’s death he entered Columbia Theological Seminary in South Carolina, where he took special interest in the questions of science and theology. In April 1857 he was licensed as a Presbyterian minister. He was encouraged by his mother to study abroad in Scotland and while there he became sick dying on January 19, 1858. He was buried in Old Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh, Scotland.
In his will of May 26, 1857, he left his estate to provide for his mother until her death and then to establish a lecture series at UNC Chapel Hill. The objective of the lectures is to show the mutual bearing of Science and Theology upon each other.
Robert Evander McNair, their great-great-grandson through Robert and Elizabeth Patterson McNair, found his career to be as a lawyer and politician. He began his law practice in the late 1940s and in 1951 was elected to the S.C. House of Representatives where he served as chair of the Labor Commerce and Industry Committee and later the Judiciary Committee. He was elected Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina in 1962 and served until he succeeded Donald S. Russell as Governor of South Carolina in 1965. In 1966, he was reelected to a full term as governor serving, at that time, an unprecedented six years in that office. Governor Robert E. McNair died on November 17, 2007.
The effort to erect a monument to the McNairs was headed by their great-granddaughter Miss Etta Brown, French Professor at Flora MacDonald College and historian of the Virginia Dare Chapter of the Daughters of American Colonists. She contacted as many descendants as she could find and found many willing to contribute toward the cost of the monument. The results lead to a railroad car of Mount Airy granite being delivered to the old McAlpin-McNair graveyard where the McNairs are buried. The monument was built with a square base eight feet by eight feet and rises twenty feet in height. The front has a gray marble tablet that reads “McNair” while a matching tablet on the rear reads “Duncan McNair and his wife Catherine McCallum McNair. They came from Scotland to N.C. n 1786.” The monument was dedicated with a large crowd of descendants present in April 1932. In June 1932 Miss Etta Brown presented a marble memorial tablet to the St. Pauls Presbyterian Church which is in a place of honor in the sanctuary. It reads “Duncan McNair First Ruling Elder of this church Elected 1799.”
In the years since the monument was place in the cemetery they both have been neglected at times. In the 1950s the young boys of the church cleaned off the cemetery making the monument visible from the road but before long the area was taken over by weeds, vines and small trees blocking it from the view. In the early 1990s church member and local historian, Bill McKay, cleared off the area trying to preserve this rich part of local history. He tried his best to continue the heavy task of removing undergrowth and vines until his death in 2005.
Recently Tommy Hall a descendant who grew up in St. Pauls but now lives in Fayetteville spearhead the efforts to reclaim the monument and graveyard from the debris and vines. He was one of the young church boys who worked to clean up the cemetery in the 1950s. He contacted Rennert Mayor Michael Locklear to see if anyone in the community was willing to help with the effort. Hall was surprised to learn from Locklear that people in the community were very willing to donate time and heavy equipment to preserve what they considered to be an important part of their history. They managed to not only put this cemetery in the best physical shape that it has seen since 1932 but in the process also reclaimed the Tolar Cemetery that adjoins it. The beautiful gravestones and wrought iron fence was completely hidden by vines and trees had grown up twisting the fence. The Tolars played a large role in the early history of Rennet. When the town was incorporated in 1895 Bunyan, Carson and U.S. Tolar all served as original town commissioners and Thomas J. Tolar was the first postmaster.
Recently in April of this year a small group of McNair and Tolar descendants and history lovers gathered eighty-one years after the monument was erected to celebrate their ancestors, the restoration of the graveyards and McNair’s oldest descendant. The day was opened with prayer by Rev. Sue Hudson pastor of St. Pauls Presbyterian Church and a talk by Hall about the preservation efforts. Hall introduced 97-year-old J. Browne Evans, the oldest member of the church and thought to be the oldest living descendant of the McNairs. The afternoon was a great time of fellowship, renewing old friendships and discussing genealogy.
One lesson is to be learned from this preservation effort and that is that each of us needs to do our part to preserve the rich, diverse history of Robeson County. There is something that everyone can do from cleaning off an old cemetery to helping to track down old photographs to taking time to talk with our elders and recording their memories. Do not make the mistake of thinking someone else will do it like the Nike commercial says “Just Do It.”