For over forty years, Dr. Robert Hart, a family physician in Hickory, North Carolina, has rescued and restored Carolina life of the nineteenth century, creating in the rolling countryside of Catawba County an entire village – the largest collection of original, historical log structures in the United States. From corn cribs and barns, to houses and chapels, and even a few outhouses, the Hart Square village has preserved over ninety original structures, all but two originally sited within a sixty mile radius of Hart Square, which is located south of Hickory about twenty minutes by car.
The village that annual festival-goers enjoy today wasn’t Bob Hart’s intended purpose for the one hundred acres (now two hundred) that he acquired in the early 1970s, when he created lakes as a nature preserve for wood ducks and other fowl. He received the North Carolina Governor’s Award for Wildlife Conservation in 1983, by which time, however, his nature preserve had slowly started to become a village of original log structures. The first building, the Hunsucker Cabin (pictured below), was moved and restored more or less on a whim. “Hey, Doc, there’s an old log cabin over here just falling down. It would look great on that new pond you just put in,” said Paul Hedrick, one of Bob’s patients, a friend, and expert outdoorsman who helped Bob establish the nature preserve.
With no intention of moving another one, he reassembled the Hunsucker House along the upper lake to suit an idealized vision of what a log cabin should be. He moved the timbers, leaving the floorboards, ceiling, windows, and doors, and even the handmade brick chimney. In following years, as the history of the structures began to pique his interest, along with their place in the development of the county, he began to salvage everything, including the nails. “It was other people’s idea more than my own,” Bob says of the first buildings moved to Hart Square. “When he got a few, he had to have some more,” says Becky.
In the decades since the Hunsucker House attracted many neighboring structures (an entire village), Bob and Becky Hart have been featured in numerous publications, including Foxfire, Homestead, Off Hours, Our State, Early American Life, and countless newspapers, and they have received a number of awards for their preservation effort. One of the first, an Aurora Gold Award, was for the video documentary Hart Square: The 1840 Carolina Village (1997). Produced by Vincent Shortt and narrated by famed historian and writer Shelby Foote, the documentary continues to air nationally on Public Television. In 1997, the Harts received a Gertrude S. Carraway Award of Merit from Preservation North Carolina. In 1998, the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, sponsored by the John Hoyle Chapter, bestowed on him a National Conservation Medal. In 2012, his book Hart Square: One Man’s Passionate Preservation of North Carolina’s Pioneer Heritage won an Award of Excellence from the North Carolina Museums Council and a Gold IPPY, a national first-place award for independent publishers. None of this would have been possible, Bob says, “Without my precious wife, Becky.”