Past Times

Chinqua-Penn’s treasures go to auction

April 22, 2012 

The grounds of Chinqua Penn Plantation.


N&O researcher Teresa Leonard looks at yesteryear in the Triangle and North Carolina on the blog Past Times,

Chinqua Penn Plantation, stately home of Jeff and Betsy Penn, destination for decades of public school field trips, will start to be dismantled this week as its contents are sold at auction.

Federal bankruptcy court ordered the sale in the case of the estate’s current owner, Calvin Phelps. While the buildings and grounds are not part of the auction, their future remains uncertain.

In 1999, N&O correspondent Lynn Setzer gave us a glimpse into the mansion and the treasures it held.

After marrying in 1923, the Penns built their home in Reidsville, where he owned property. During the late 1920s and in the 1930s, the couple visited some 40 countries. Everywhere they went, they picked up an idea or a souvenir.

Stephen Helmer, conservator of Chinqua-Penn, says the couple accumulated about 4,000 items; not everything can be displayed at once, so items are rotated.

Turning into the parking area, visitors will first notice a stone clock tower. Then, on the walk to the house, a Chinese pagoda that was a bathhouse for the pool. Then the cupid fountain from Versailles at the entrance.

Inside, the world’s diversity comes to life.

In the entry hall hangs a 15th-century Byzantine mosaic of Moses. The reception hall, dressed in 17th-century Jacobean oak, contains a replica of a chair found in King Tut’s tomb, a Nepalese shrine and an 18th-century Chinese temple table.

The entrance to the living room is flanked with Italian stone columns with Spanish sgraffito tiles depicting the story of Don Quixote. Above the mantelpiece hangs a 17th-century tapestry of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Ornate Chinese temple lanterns hang from cypress beams painted by a Scandinavian artist. Upstairs, the bedrooms are decorated with international themes.

Chinqua-Penn was named for the chinquapin tree, a dwarf chestnut native to the Eastern United States and once abundant on the property. The Chinese chestnut tree just outside the greenhouse is one of the few chestnut trees on the property today.

Though called a plantation, Chinqua-Penn was not a plantation in the typical sense of the word. Helmer says no slaves ever worked there and the Penns didn’t grow a cash crop. The “plantation” was derived from the Corn Jug Farm tract, known for champion Holsteins and hogs, that Penn bought in 1911.

The couple came from well-heeled and prestigious families. Thomas Jefferson Penn’s family included William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and John Penn, who signed the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina. Penn’s father founded Penn Tobacco Co. in Reidsville, which was sold to American Tobacco Co. in 1911.

Margaret Beatrice “Betsy” Schoellkopf came from a prominent New York family. Her father founded Niagara Power Co. and was mayor of Niagara Falls in 1896.

The couple were active in community affairs. He supported Reidsville Hospital and was known to send baskets of flowers to patients. She introduced the Girl Scouts to town and opened the area’s first 4-H center in 1964. Both were involved with the American Red Cross. – The N&O 11/21/1999

For more description of Chinqua Penn’s decor, plus a link to items for auction, go to

Leonard: 919-829-4866 or

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