March is Women’s History Month –http://www.nwhp.org/womens-history-month/womens-history-month-history/ . In the story of our nation, many accounts focus on what men have accomplished. Many women in the past had to take the back seat when it came to making history – perhaps taking the opportunity to bend their husbands’ ears before deals were made and wars were fought. Bath, North Carolina seemed a bit progressive in 1921 when all the town council positions were filled by women, albeit only unofficially – it seems their elected husbands didn’t have the time to commit to town business while running their own! Many town improvements were made during the ladies’ tenure, including a successful campaign to pave a road between Bath and Washington and completion of Bath High School.
As I have been giving some thought about the women who have made their mark on our town, one person kept coming to mind. I want to dedicate this blog in the memory of Dorothy “Dot” Tankard, a modern trailblazer.
Mrs. Tankard was not only the first site manager of Historic Bath State Historic Site, she was the first woman in the Department of Cultural Resources to be named to that position in all of North Carolina! One might say that town founder John Lawson put Bath on the map, and so he did, literally speaking – but Mrs. Tankard put our town on the map figuratively! In fact, she came on the Bath restoration scene when efforts were being made on the local level. Edmund Harding, a nationally known humorist and speaker, was heading the Beaufort County Historical Society in the 1950s and this group saw to the purchasing and opening of the 1751 Palmer-Marsh and 1830 Bonner Houses in 1962. The following year, the grassroots preservation effort was rewarded with the acceptance of Bath’s buildings into the system run by the state of North Carolina.
Since I never had the pleasure of knowing Mrs. Tankard, I asked some questions about her legacy of Gerald Butler, the man who followed in her footsteps. Mr. Butler became the second manager of Historic Bath Site and began his work on the site in 1983 after his tenure at Somerset Place and Historic Halifax. He was in a unique position to see the impact Mrs. Tankard had on the site, the town of Bath and the state. He told me that although his feet were larger than hers, he knew he would have a difficult time filling her shoes. Her mark on Bath as a native and as a proactive champion of the newly formed historic site made her “a strong face for Bath.” Mr. Butler remarked that “Dot seized what media was available, which was only about three television stations. I daresay she had more exposure than all the other managers together.” I cannot say I had ever before given much thought to that fact, but those early managers had the job not just as a manager of day-to-day operations of an already established business – they were basically starting from scratch and had to let the public know that they were here, worth seeing and ready for business! Butler noted that Tankard’s “lack of timidity in front of the camera” would have been necessary to get the public awareness up to a level to begin having sizable visitation at the site.
In addition to being present for the creation of a new historic site and assuming the management and all the efforts required to get a new business off and running, Mrs. Tankard was a very active charter member and officer of the Historic Albemarle Tour – http://www.historicalbemarletour.org/. She was also involved in the Ocean Highway Association, which is now defunct. She was instrumental in the site obtaining about $180,000 in federal grant money to bulkhead Bonner’s Point, which was washing away.
She was here when the c. 1790 Van Der Veer House was moved onto the historic site, a gift from a local family. She was one of the founders of the outdoor drama that ran in Bath from 1977-1986, Blackbeard: Knight of the Black Flag, which was written by Stuart Aronson. Mr. Butler put it this way: “She was integrally involved in every house on the site except for the Carson Cottage.” (The Carson Cottage, part of which dates circa 1900, was given to the state by The Historic Bath Foundation, Inc. a decade ago.)
Without naming all the members of Mrs. Tankard’s family, suffice it to say that her legacy has had a far-reaching influence over them. They continue to have Bath’s best interests at heart, serving on historic boards, helping our site and the local community college with projects, etc.
To date (1962-2015), Historic Bath State Historic Site has only had four managers………does that tell you something of the magic of this place? As the current person in this lineup, I am indeed grateful that Dot Tankard created such a firm foundation on which we can continue to build Bath’s story for the public to learn from and enjoy.
Leigh Swain, Historic Bath Site Manager June 2007 –