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Grass seed and hay was spread across a repaired Silver Lake dam Tuesday, completing a months-long project to restore scenic Silver Lake.
A consortium of Wilson County farmers — Johnny Barnes, Zacky Bissette, Jerome Vick and Todd Glover — came together with their own money, equipment and land to make the $110,000 repair.
The earthen dam was breached during Hurricane Matthew in October 2016, draining the lake, which served both as a source of irrigation for farmers and as a scenic attraction for motorists along N.C. 58 and the adjacent Silver Lake Oyster Bar.
“I think it is just great that we were able to come together,” said Barnes, of Barnes Farming Corp., who organized the effort to rebuild the lake on a suggestion in 2017 from his father, Carson Barnes, who passed away on Aug. 19, 2017.
“We have got to give credit to Johnny Barnes’ daddy,” said Vick, of Vick Family Farms. “Carson came to see me two times before he died and he is a pretty good visionary and always has been. He said, ‘This is a project you guys need to get together on. Silver Lake is worth saving and y’all need to get together and fix it.’”
“Between 500 to 600 acres were irrigated out of here and we lost that source of irrigation,” said Johnny Barnes.
Barnes approached other farmers who used the lake’s water about pitching in to fix the dam.
“We tried to get cost-share funding from the government and we got no help from anyone,” Barnes said. “So I said, well, maybe we can get a group together, all of the farmers that irrigate out of it and come together and do this together as a project for the community and all of the farmers that I approached that irrigate out of here, not a one of them backed up. We are at the finish line now and we are just kind of celebrating. When it gets full of water, we are going to have a party out on that deck right there.”
Zacky Bissette, of Zackly-Rite Farms located immediately adjacent to the project, allowed his property to be mined of soil material to use for the earthen dam.
A.B. Whitley, who retired after a 34-year career with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service, supervised the new dam’s construction.
Whitley has designed and worked on more than 500 dams in his career.
“This is, by far, the biggest one and most challenging one I have worked on,” Whitley said.
Dating back to the late 1700s, the dam was originally used to power a grist mill. It has breached many times. The concrete portion of the dam, located next to the restaurant, is about a century old.
“Anytime you have worked on one that’s got an old structure, you don’t know about the integrity of that structure,” Whitley said. “I know the dam is built like it supposed to be, the earthen part. I can’t vouch but so much for the other structure.”
Five old gates for the spillway had to be replaced with new custom gates made by Waterman Industries in Exeter, California, at a price of $8,000 each.
“We increased the height of the dam so that if it got high enough to jump the wall like it has in the past and blow out an area right there where it blew it out this past time, we increased the height of the dam to keep that from happening,” Whitley said.
Whitley said the dam is now stronger than it has ever been.
“I think these farmers coming together is the only way it’s going to get fixed,” said Bissette, who donated the dirt. “A.B. Whitley and Barnes Farming, they did a remarkable job of fixing it. I don’t think you could have spent a million dollars and fixed it that well. It’s just beautiful.”
“It’s a mutual interest for all of us adjoining landowners to have a place to irrigate from, not only from a community standpoint, but also from also being able to get water,” said Vick. “It’s just a good idea and it just shows what can happen when three or four farmers get together, instead of working against each other.”
Todd Glover, of Todd Glover Farms Inc., said the repair will help farmers with a water source but also be “a nice place to look at.”
“I didn’t want to see this side look like the other side of 264 where Finch’s Dam went out,” Glover said. “I thought it would help beautify this side of the county when people came in visiting and eating and seeing what Wilson County had to offer.
The watershed that flows into the lake is about 17,300 acres. The source is Toisnot Swamp. When filled, the lake is about 125 acres.
Whitley said the question he’s probably most asked is how long it will take for Silver Lake to fill up.
“The only answer there is to that is it depends on how much rainfall we get and how much is pumped out,” Whitley said.
The Silver Lake area has a lot of history and was a central gathering place for many in Wilson County.
“I just hope that the people in the community will appreciate it and enjoy it and the people in Wilson County and other counties when they come over to the restaurant or just ride by or just sit for quiet time and look at the lake once it is once it is back in place is going to be the reward for us,” Whitley said.
Barnes said he has a lot of memories of coming to the lake with family and friends.
“My wife and I came here to eat on our first date,” Barnes said. “This is a really important part of our community and our history and it’s worth saving.”
Barnes said that while the majority of financial contributions came from farmers, a small percentage came from residents living near the lake.
“I think the lake will have a positive impact on business once it has refilled and the grasses have died off and it looks more like its old self,” said Richard Millinder, owner of the Silver Lake Oyster Bar. “Between the farmers, the homeowners who live on the lake and the restaurant who all contributed in varying degrees to help fund the work, it feels really great to have been a small part of getting the dam repaired and the lake back.”
Vick said the project wouldn’t have been possible without Johnny Barnes.
“Johnny’s got the equipment and he’s done a wonderful job,” Vick said. “He’s had over a million worth of equipment out here working on this thing.”
Vick said it just shows what can happen by working together.
“The challenge we want to give to the other people is they need to fix Finch’s Mill, the government folks,” Vick said. “I don’t know if it’s the city folks or the county, or somebody, but if a bunch of little farmers can get together and do this, I know they can fix Finch’s Mill. That’s on a major corridor coming into Wilson. It looks bad over there. It’s worth saving.”
And though Carson Barnes didn’t live to see it, all the farmers agreed that he would have been proud of what has been accomplished by saving Silver Lake.