Native Americans, colonists, traders, millwrights and of course, farmers, settled around the lake for centuries before the word "resort" ever came to be associated with the town and its centerpiece.
Many descendants of those early settlers still live in Bladen County today, but most of the evidence of the earliest White Lake settlements have fallen victim to development, the timber industry, and time.
Here and there, though, one finds indications of what they left behind.
Dugout canoes, crumbling gravestones, rusting iron, yellowed letters with century-old postmarks, and soft pink roses provide modern residents of the area a glimpse of times past at White Lake
First settlers were also just visitors
The earliest settlers around White Lake were much like today's summer guests-they probably brought their families to the lake for just a few months out of the year.
Indians established semi-permanent towns around the lake hundreds of years before the first Europeans came to Bladen County. Each year, entire villages would move from farther inland to the coast where they would catch and dry fish, raise crops and gather shellfish.
The villagers would stop several times along the way to hunt, preserve skins, and gather plants for medicine and food.
The Siouan-speaking tribes who made their home in the Bladen area around starting about 1,000 years ago-Indians also known as Cape Fears, Woccons and Waccamaws-traveled less than the Piedmont tribes. They also lived in smaller groups.
It's likely the dugout canoes found in White Lake in the 1980's were made by the resident families, rather than the visiting tribes, since dugout canoes are time- and labor intensive.
It's not known for sure who the first Europeans were to see White Lake. Juan Pardo and Hernando de Soto's adventurers stayed on the rivers during their brief forays into what would become southeastern North Carolina, and likely never strayed this far inland. De Ayllon's 'accidental' explorers never left the banks of the Cape Fear during their short trips up the Cape Fear from what's now Bald Head Island.
The English explorers who came to North Carolina in the late 1500's and early 1600's concentrated on the northeast section of the state. Although the area inland of the Cape Fear coast was well-marked and well-known, records indicate little more than a handful of wandering white hunters and adventurers passed through the area before the late 1600's and early 1700's.
It seems likely that John Lawson, one of the earliest English explorers of North Carolina, would have mentioned the bay lakes if he had visited them or the Cape Fear, Woocon, or Waccamaw villages. Lawson explored much of the state for the Lords Proprietors (the men granted ownership of the state by the royal government).
Lawson was killed during the Tuscarora Wars of 1701-1711, but left behind detailed descriptions of the state and many of its Indian inhabitants.
His books are also quick to note differences between Indian tribes, and had he visited the Waccamaw Siouans-who showed more influence from tribes to the south, rather than those to the north and west-he likely would have mentioned them.
What would become known as White Lake shows up on maps of the 1730's, and is mentioned frequently thereafter as a landmark.
It was known by several names-White Lake is called, without explanation, Cranston's Lake on the 1770 Collet map of the area.
But one of the first Europeans to make a major impact on the area-one might even call him the first developer at White Lake-was William Bartram. While Bartram's cousins were better known, his name was used to describe White Lake by older residents even in the early 1900's, long after the country settlement had become a resort town.
Born and raised in Penn's Colony (Pennsylvania) William Bartram I probably came to North Carolina in late 1710. Bartram had a farm and extensive holdings in what is now Carteret County. He was killed during the Tuscarora wars, and his wife and family were taken prisoner.
They were later ransomed and returned to Pennsylvania. As a youth, William Bartram II returned to North Carolina between 1726 and 1732, and came south. He eventually received a 250-acre land grant near Hammond's Creek in 1735.
Even though he was a young man-likely in his late teens or early twenties-Bartram began expanding his holdings. By 1750, he owned land on the southern and southeastern sides of White Lake. The lake itself was referred to by this time as Bartram's Lake.
It was prime property for development.
The naval stores industry was expanding in the middle of the 1700's, providing wood, tar, pitch, and turpentine to the Royal Navy and shipping firms. Some of the best timber in the area lay on the south side of "Bartram's Lake."
Bartram established a grist mill and trading post on the southwestern corner of what was now called 'his' lake, both to provide income and support the people working his lands. Camp Clearwater today stands where the grist mill once operated.
The mill was powered by a set of floodgates that were manually opened and closed, using the lake's water for power. The old millrace was discovered again in 1988. Adze-and broadaxe-trimmed timbers two feet square and forty feet long were discovered during a road project.
"I can remember seeing the path of the old mill race," said James Melvin. "It was filled in during the 1940's, I guess. It dug by hand and shored up with timbers.
"If he hadn't had a good system of closing the gates, I think the miller could have drained the lake."
It was common for landholders in the colonial period to hire agents to recruit settlers, especially skilled workers, for new land.
Farmers and husbandman (specialists in livestock) were required to grow crops and animals. While slaves often provided much of the labor, indentured servants and common laborers were also recruited to help settle wild areas.
With the end of the civil war in Scotland, thousands of Scots and Scotch-Irish settlers began emigrating to America. Some were willing to come, while others were forced to emigrate for fighting against the Crown. Many of these settlers were farmers and skilled laborers.
Farmers, loggers, carpenters, barrel makers, and settlers needed the skills of the blacksmith. Where boats could not be used, horses and oxen were required, and both animals require shoes.
Loggers and turpentine workers required axes, saws, augers and a dozen other specialized tools, all of which are made of iron or steel.
The simple two-wheel cart (an ancestor of the modern Depression era Hoover cart) was the pickup truck of the day. Even the simplest cart had more than fifty iron parts that had to be made by the blacksmith.
It's not known for sure who was the first permanent blacksmith at Bartram's Lake, but there's a good chance it was Ben Dyson.
Dyson moved to Colly from Wilmington in the 1750's. His grandson, Angus Dyson, became a well-known blacksmith in the area in the 1800's. It's likely Angus learned the trade from his grandfather and father.
Ben Dyson's wife also planted and cultivated English Conch roses around their home. To date, those roses have been passed down through nine generations of Dyson's descendants.
Mathilda Mote, Angus Dyson's granddaughter, grows descendants of those original roses behind her home on Mote Road, north of the lake.
"We don't know if he brought them from England, or if they grew here," she said earlier this year, "but they always grew around the old home place."
Mrs. Mote's husband Daniel found the old home site years ago and brought home some of the rose bushes, as well as a sapling from a large oak tree with wide leaves. The tree is unknown or at least unusual in the area, and Mrs. Mote said the trees once shaded the old Dyson place and the blacksmith's shop.
"You don't find those anymore," she said. "Those particular roses are getting harder to find, too."
The only remains of Dyson's shop and home today are a few sunken graves, and the rambling vines of the roses. The exact location has been blurred through the years as logging and farming operations took place near what had been known as Bartram's Lake.
As with many Bladen County records from before 1900, successive courthouse fires have destroyed many of the documents pertaining to the county's history. Much of what remains is found through family collections, although some of those can be incomplete.
James Melvin's family moved to White Lake in the 1840's or 1850's. Robert Phillip Melvin, who would become sheriff of the county during the War Between The States, came to the lake before the death of his father, Sen. Robert Melvin (see Duelling Broadaxes? elsewhere in Progress) in 1854.
Before he became sheriff, Melvin married Anna Maria Sutton, whose father had extensive landholdings near the lake. When he wasn't enforcing the law, the sheriff was farming.
"At one point in time," James Melvin said, "he was farming 800 acres out there toward the Colly bay."
Sheriff Melvin's home still stands just south of the Municipal Building. Letters preserved by the family indicate that Sheriff Melvin was not only a smart politician, but a good law officer, too.
"We have a letter written after a robbery in the Kelly area," Melvin said, "where the victim details everything that was taken, and the values. He says in there that he has all faith Sheriff Melvin will capture the criminals."
Melvin also has copies of paperwork from Sheriff Melvin's time in office, including when Melvin, like all local law officers, was ordered by the governor to gather any and all firearms and other weapons that could be used by the state troops then serving in the Confederate army.
"After he died," James Melvin said, "there was some Confederate money recovered from inside the house. We don't know how active he was, but he apparently supported the cause."
By the late 19th century, as the country began recovering from the War Between the States, the Melvin family's interests began to change.
While they still farmed, they also began development of Melvin's Beach around 1900. It eventually became Camp Clearwater.
While things were busy on the southwestern corner of the lake, growth was happening elsewhere as well.
Today's White Lake Baptist Church got its start in 1832 as Mt. Pleasant Baptist, under Elder Phillip Harrington, a relative of Sheriff Melvin through marriage.
Other families, including Merritts, Dysons, and more moved into the area as "taking the waters" or "resorting" became more popular with Victorian era Americans. The trend was put on hold during the War Between the States and during the economic troubles of the Reconstruction era, but by the 1880s, wealthier Americans were again seeking resorts and talking vacations.
The "Duplin Consortium," a group of wealthy businessmen from the Magnolia and Wallace areas, had several large homes on the northeastern side of the lake. Other wealthy visitors came from across the state as well.
As early as 1892, people were riding trains to Garland from Wilmington and Fayetteville, renting horses or carriages, and traveling to White Lake. Others took steamboats to Elizabethtown.
Not all the lake's visitors were wealthy tourists. Many were like today's visitors-working class families were visiting the lake for recreation even before the development of tourist attractions like the pavilions, beaches, and boat rides that attracted the children of the "Duplin Consortium."
"I've heard stories about how (some of my family) from around Harrells would travel to the lake in a horse and buggy," Melvin said. "They wouldn't know for sure until they got to Colly Creek if they could get to the lake or not, since there was only a ford, not a bridge there."
The ford was on present-day N.C. 41, which was then the Magnolia Road.
The road had its roots in the colonial road system of North Carolina, appearing on several pre-Revolutionary maps.
Modern-day N.C. 41 also roughly follows one of the trading paths used by Indians moving through the eastern part of the state.
Legend has it the road was improved for the first time with state money because a member of the "Duplin Consortium" had some pull with the 1900 General Assembly.
Some things never change
Whether along a path, a trail, a dirt road, or a modern highway, a good location is still a good location.
The modern-day Scotchman convenience store, located at the intersection of N.C. 41, White Lake Drive, and U.S. 701, is not the first business to take advantage of that intersection.
Hundreds of tourists and travelers go through the store every day, and even more shop there in the summer time.
Some things never change.
The Scotchman store sits near what was once called the community of Ham.
"I suppose they had a general store and a post office there," James Melvin said, "since we have a letter addressed to Ham, North Carolina."
The early 1900's note advises one of Melvin's relatives to have someone till and harrow a field.
"I haven't heard very much about Ham," Melvin said, "but it would be a logical place for a store."
Ham stood near the modern-day Scotchman store. It's unknown whether the community dried up or whether the store was absorbed by the town of White Lake.
Another commercial enterprise will likely remain a mystery.
Some things disappear
A single reference in Revolutionary War pension application mentions "Melvin's Post near Col. Bartram's Lake." The term post would mean store or trading post in this context, but no records of such a colonial business have been found to date.
It could also refer to a traveling peddler who worked out of a wagon or tent, only staying in the area for a few days or weeks.
Or, 'Melvin's Post' could be a simple mistake.
James Melvin's family came to the area much later, and he said he wasn't familiar with any mercantile operations after the family home moved from Peter's Creek and Ammon to White Lake.
"I have to admit, " he said, " I haven't heard of it."
The naturalist John Bartram visited the lake in 1765, after becoming Royal Botanist to King George III. John and his son Billy explored the lake named for his half-brother of William Bartram II.
They found the lake "an exceedingly agreeable place for Fishing, and Healthful Activities." (sic) The banks were also suitable for settlement and commerce.
More than 240 years later, the Bartrams aren't the only ones with that opinion of White Lake.