OBLHS Members Find Rare Bull's-Eye Panels in Thieves Market
by Aida Doss Havel
Why It Pays to Go to Church
"Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye
shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you."
It was November 20, 2016, just a normal Sunday in the fall in Raleigh, North Carolina. My husband John and I had attended the 9:00 a.m. service at Unity Church of the Triangle and were enjoying coffee and conversation with friends in different places in our church’s Fellowship Hall. Just as I was wrapping up a conversation with someone, John excitedly approached me and asked, “Can we change our afternoon plans today?” Well, we didn’t have any, so being the loving, patient, and supportive wife that I am, I said, “Sure, honey, what’s up?”
John then began telling me a long story (all his stories are long, but generally interesting) that Diane McDaniel, a friend of ours, had told him, knowing of his interest in lighthouses (everyone knows of John’s interest in lighthouses, but truth be told, his heart has been captured by only one, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse [“Is that the one they moved?” people ask him, and it drives him nuts….” “Yes, of course, you numbskull,” is what he’s dying to reply, but usually doesn’t]). Diane had been in a consignment store named Thieves Market (great name!) on the east side of Raleigh heading towards Knightdale. She said to John, "Say, you love lighthouses, don't you? I think I may have found a lens from a lighthouse. I go to flea markets a lot and last week I was at the Thieves Market on New Bern Avenue. I think I saw a pair of lighthouse lenses." She described two bronze panels with “glass lenses” in them that had a tag on them saying they were lighthouse lenses. And she remembered the price on them as around $12.00 each.
At first, John was a bit skeptical of Diane’s tale, but as he asked more questions and she answered them, he decided a drive out to Thieves Market was in order. We checked, and they opened at noon (it was then about 11:30), so we headed east. Jumping out of our car just as the doors opened, John and I each took one side of the long room lined with booth after booth of miscellaneous ‘treasures.’ I spied the lenses almost immediately, along with a tag that said, “Light house Fresnel lens glass color indicates it is French origin.” The price was $1,250.00 each, just a tad higher than dear Diane had remembered! (Parenthetical note: “Fresnel” refers to the inventor of this type of lens, Augustin Fresnel…more about him and his lens later).
We looked the lenses over quickly, and I thought John might have a heart attack. “These are the real thing,” he muttered several times, looking around surreptitiously to make sure no one could hear us. He whipped out his cell phone and called Cheryl and Bruce Roberts, dear friends of ours and the founders of the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society (OBLHS), who live in Morehead City. They didn’t answer the phone, so John left a message and also sent them a text with a photo of the lenses. His next call was to Bett and Bill Padgett, other dear friends of ours, who, like Cheryl and Bruce, are also on the board of the OBLHS, but who live much closer in Raleigh. John described our find, and they told him to stay put and they’d be right over.
In the ensuing 15-20 minutes, John and I hovered around the lenses, shielding them from anyone who might be interested in our find (nobody was, but we actually thought we might have found the first recovered bull's-eye lenses from the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, and we were not going to let them get away), and continued to inspect them. We noticed that each lens had numbers engraved on each end, which we figured was to indicate where they went in the lens apparatus (a little like ‘Tab A goes into Slot A’), but had no other markings on them.
When Bett and Bill arrived and took a look, they were as excited as we were and confirmed that the lenses were authentic. The next step was to figure out what to do. Bill, an experienced estate sale buyer, said we needed to talk to the owner of the consignment booth and try to negotiate the best price possible. So, we walked to the front desk of Thieves Market, and the manager gave us the number of Annette Goforth who rented the booth. John called her and immediately began peppering her with questions about where the lenses came from and how long she’d had them. Annette told John that the lenses actually belonged to her brother, Charles Goforth, who lived in Pinehurst. She gave John his number, and John made the call, as Bett, Bill, and I were standing nearby, grinning from ear to ear and pinching ourselves.
John tried not to be too excited as he explained who he was and why he was interested in the lenses. Charles Goforth was very friendly, and patiently explained that he had bought the lenses in a salvage yard in Fayetteville thirty years earlier. He had carted them around with him to Pennsylvania, New York City, and finally back to North Carolina where he decided it was time to part with them, and so he’d consigned them to his sister to sell in her Thieves Market booth. He told John he’d been offered $1,250.00 each for them some years earlier by a lighthouse museum in Maine (the Maine Lighthouse Museum is one of the oldest and biggest in the U.S.), but decided not to sell at that time, and that’s how he arrived at the price that was currently on them. With Bill whispering advice in his ear (“Some of the lenses are a little chipped which decreases the value,” “What will you take for just one panel?” and “Because we’re not sure which lighthouse they’re from, it decreases their value somewhat”), John was able to negotiate a price of $1,500.00 for the pair, just $750.00 for each panel!
While Charles called his sister to let her know the new price, and she in turn then called the cashier at Thieves Market, the Padgetts and the Havels agreed between themselves that they would each purchase one panel. We each made our purchase, and drove off with our precious new (old) possessions.
The lenses are called ‘bull's-eye’ lenses because there’s a round convex lens in the middle of a line of prisms above and below, and the round lens is the ‘bull's-eye.’ The lenses, more formally known as Fresnel lenses, were invented by and named after Augustin Fresnel (pronounced (Fray-NEL) and manufactured by hand in France in the mid-to-late 1800s. These incredible assemblies of precision optics were considerably brighter and shone farther than anything in existence at the time, and quickly became the standard for lighthouses around the world. John had never held one in his hands before, and was amazed by its design and artistry.
Once we got home, John immediately began trying to determine which lighthouse the panels came from. Although at first glance many of these lenses look alike, the size of each panel, the number of curved prisms (the fancy word is ‘catadioptric’ prisms) above and below the convex bull's-eye, and whether or not the bull's-eye is fully round, or in the case of these, cut off on each side, make each ‘flash panel’ unique and easier to match to a particular lens and lighthouse. Sadly, John determined from his collection of historical photos that these were not from his beloved Hatteras, as they were too small and had too few prisms. However, they did match—exactly—a lens panel found years ago, in 2011, under a bed, by Hatteras-islander Dawn Farrow Taylor. That lens panel came from the Cape Fear Lighthouse, established in 1903 on the east point of Smith's Island (now known as Bald Head Island) and coincidentally (or not), the same lighthouse that Dawn's great-grandfather Devaney Farrow Jennette (or ‘Pops’ as she calls him) served as Assistant Keeper for 14 years, from 1919 until 1932.
After that lighthouse was decommissioned and demolished in 1958, pieces of its magnificent first-order Fresnel lens were sold and dispersed across North Carolina, and many were consequently lost. In 2009 the Old Baldy Foundation was able to acquire the massive bronze base for the lens and what prisms that remained and has begun the process of collecting as many of the hundreds of precision glass prisms that it can find to reassemble in a museum display. The “Thieves Market” bull's-eye flash panels are the tenth and eleventh panels that have been recovered so far. Plans are in the works to build a museum on the grounds near Old Baldy Lighthouse to display the lens and tell its remarkable story.
For months now, John has been delightedly doing ‘show and tell’ with this lens. Hopefully within the next few years, Old Baldy Foundation will have the means to build their new addition to display this lens, and it will go back to them to be reunited with the other found panels. For now, we enjoy hauling it around in our car (well wrapped and protected!) to show unsuspecting friends; and, we continue to go to church, never knowing who we know who might have stumbled across a piece of forgotten lighthouse history.
And that’s why it pays to go to church!
Aida Havel describes herself as a "peaceful divorce attorney," and frequently trains other lawyers in mediation, collaborative law, and alternatives to litigation. She and her husband John Havel live in Salvo, on Hatteras Island, and enjoy researching the Outer Banks of North Carolina and the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
© 2018 OBLHS Cheryl Shelton-Roberts
Do you know which lighthouse's first-order Fresnel lens––one so large a six-foot man could lie down inside of it––held twenty-four huge flash panels and became the centerpiece of the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York? Clues: This well-traveled and admired lens was later installed and put to work in 1903 in a North Carolina lighthouse. You can still visit its massive footers and generator building on one of the world's most beautiful islands where it once overlooked the vast Atlantic Ocean and nearby ‘river of history.’ And if that's not enough to create a surge of saltwater in your veins and turn your regular shoes into flip-flops, nearby is North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse since 1817. Read on for an amazing story of a once-soaring guardian whose story continues in the twenty-first century due to heroes without capes trying to save history before it vanishes forever.
Article originally published in The Lighthouse News Fall 2017
Left to right: John Havel, Bett Padgett, and Bill Padgett at the Thieves Market Mall in Raleigh with their bull's-eye panels from the 1903 Cape Fear first-order Fresnel lens whose prisms were sold piecemeal decades ago after the lighthouse was demolished in 1958. Keep your eye open for treasures like these and help to see they are preserved properly. They are more out there somewhere!
Photograph by Aida Havel
Bett Padgett visited Lacy Elementary School in Raleigh to share the bull's-eye panel she and husband Bill bought when John and Aida Havel discovered them for sale at a flea market. Fourth grade students across North Carolina study state history and teachers have the opportunity to study lighthouses. Kids have a natural affinity for lighthouses! If you need a speaker at your school, contact the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society at oblhs.org.
Photograph by Bett Padgett