Johnston farm up for sale

Development could add 5,500 people to Clayton

Staff WriterDecember 2, 2005 

Ray Earp Jr. and his sister, Winkie Worley, are putting their 652-acre Clayton farm up for sale. With it will go part of the history that has connected their family to Johnston County for more than 200 years.

Triangle residents may know the farm as the home of one of the state's premier horse racing events. For 13 years, it has drawn up to 20,000 spectators for the Brookhill Steeplechase.

The sale, which is not yet final, could eventually add about 5,500 residents to Clayton. A developer wants to convert the rolling pastureland and woods into a subdivision of about 2,200 homes.

Clayton officials embrace the project -- a mix of townhouses, apartments, single-family homes and retail, which over 10 years could increase Clayton's population by about 50 percent. Many still question how the area's schools, roads and sewage-treatment capacity can accommodate so many residents. But officials say the property's size offers a better opportunity for planning than piecemeal developments would.

Raymond Elmore Earp bought the land off Covered Bridge Road in 1951 shortly after the birth of his second child, Mary Willie Earp -- a preemie who got her nickname from nurses at Rex Hospital, from the nursery rhyme "Wee Willie Winkie." The land was a trust for his two children.

Earp was a surgeon who attended the University of Pennsylvania medical school. He practiced for many years in Pittsburgh before leaving medicine to rejoin his family in Johnston County, where his ancestors had farmed since the early 1800s. A founding board member of Johnston County Memorial Hospital, he raised pigs, turkeys and grain after his return.

He bought land around his family farm, eventually amassing about 2,000 acres. He donated a piece of it to Thanksgiving Baptist Church and let the church sell barbecue and cakes on his farm whenever he had a big hog sale.

The family plucked camellias from the farm to give all the women a blossom at Meredith College's annual dinner in Raleigh. Earp was on Meredith's board of trustees.

And when Earp's children inherited the farm, they adopted both his attachment to the land and his willingness to share it with the community.

The brother and sister remain close. Both live on a separate part of the farm off N.C. 42 that is not up for sale. They can wave at each other from the front doors of their houses, about a quarter mile apart. Earp raises cows, grows grain and operates a soil decontamination company there.

When cows get out and a fence needs mending, which happened one rainy day this week, the brother and sister work side by side, pounding steel posts into the ground and muddying their boots and hands.

Events on the farm

In the late 1980s, the two agreed to let local groups such as the Clayton Rotary, Civitan and Jaycee organizations hold a Triangle Balloon Classic on the Clayton farm. The hot-air balloon contest helped raise money for the organizations and attracted about 10,000 spectators a year for three years.

Then, in 1993, members of the Raleigh Jaycees asked if they could hold a steeplechase, where jockeys would race horses over a grassy course and jump fences.

"Had I known what I know now, we probably wouldn't have done it," Earp said. "It takes a lot of work and man-hours. I'm a farmer, not a horse person."

But after initial challenges, the event became one of four nationally sanctioned steeplechases in the state. The Brookhill Steeplechase became a key fund-raiser for the Raleigh Jaycees, netting $10,000 to $15,000 a year, said Jeff Zabawa, president of the Jaycees.

Earp said he hopes to keep the steeplechase on his farm for a few more years before the subdivision is built out. That's welcome news to Zabawa, who said his group has paid a small rental charge to use the property -- "nothing compared to the value of the land."

Earp and Worley have attended every steeplechase. They throw a big bash in a tent for their closest friends and serve food with their finest silverware.

"We go the whole nine yards," said Worley, who's known for donning elegant dresses and lavish wide-brimmed hats.

But in the weeks before the race, Worley and Earp aren't sitting back relaxing, Zabawa said. They work hard to make sure that the course complies with the standards of the National Steeplechase Association and that their property can accommodate the crowds that flock to the race the first Saturday of May -- the same day as the Kentucky Derby.

Earp won't say what made him and his sister want to sell the farm now. Worley says she feels ready to part with it on some days, other days not.

Paul Yates, who lives half a mile from them, says he can understand their decision. His family, which used to own a dairy farm in Chapel Hill, faced a similar situation years ago.

The pain of letting go

"You don't want to sell it," he said. "But when somebody comes with an offer you can't refuse ... what can you do?"

Johnston County's property tax office appraised the property at about $2 million in 2002.

Yates praised Earp and his sister for being civic-minded "public servants." They let him bring the N.C. Ducks Unlimited Duck Dog Classic to the farm on Covered Bridge Road in October.

"That property is gorgeous," he said. "I hate to see it developed."

Scott Carpenter, a Clayton planner, agreed. "It's one of the nicest pieces of property in the county," he said. "It's the type of property most people would want to conserve, but then again its location makes it prime for development. You don't find lots that big that close in to a town."

Worley said she and her brother will miss the property. It contains memories of picnics she and her mother would spread before her father and field workers under a huge oak tree. It holds reminders of parties carried on in grand style.

But to thousands of future residents, who know little of that past, it may soon be a place for swing sets, backyard trampolines and front-porch rocking chairs -- a place to call home.

Staff writer Peggy Lim can be reached at 836-5799 or plim@newsobserver.com.

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