Park’s new building to open another chapter of Wake County’s cotton plantation history

1860s abode from Wendell joins Historic Oak View grounds

ablythe@newsobserver.comSeptember 6, 2012 

  • Buildings at Historic Oak View County Park • The Plank Kitchen is the oldest building at the park, built around 1825 and restored in the 1990s. • The Main Farmhouse was built in 1855 by Benton S.D. Williams. It was remodeled in the 1940s by J. Gregory Poole Sr. • The Carriage House was built around 1900 and initially served as storage for the farm’s carriage. It was converted into a two-car garage in the 1940s. • The Livestock Barn was built around 1900 and originally housed the farm’s horses and mules. Today, the barn is used for school programs and serves as the home for the park’s two Nubian goats: Boyd and Quint. • Oak View’s Cotton Gin House was built around the turn of the 20th century and served as the gin for Oak View and neighboring farms. Today, the Cotton Gin House houses exhibits and displays about cotton production.
  • More information Front porch fundraiser A benefit concert to raise money for the Tenant House Restoration will be held on Sept. 22, from 4 to 7 p.m., at Historic Oak View County Park, 4028 Carya Drive in Raleigh. Three local bands – the Iron Mountain Messengers, Kudzu Ramblers and the Happy Valley Pals – will play old-time Southern music. The park received a $20,000 grant from the Marion Stedman Covington Foundation to help with the restoration costs, but it’s a challenge grant. The park has to raise a matching $20,000 to receive the grant.

— To tread the paths of Historic Oak View County Park is to step back to a bygone era when cotton plantations thrived in Wake County.

The stately 157-year-old farmhouse, detached kitchen, cotton gin house, livestock barn, carriage house, pecan grove and herb garden on the property are reminders of plantation life both before and after the Civil War.

But one chapter of that history has been noticeably missing – the story of the tenant farmer.

The foundation to change that has been laid. A wooden house that was built in the 1860s about 11 miles away on the rural edges of Wendell will be moved from its original site to the park and lowered onto brick piers near the farmhouse Saturday morning.

“This has been a long time coming,” Eric Staehle, project manager, said Friday as workers prepared the two-room house for its move.

Wake County park workers Emily Catherman and Matt Fryar watched with pride and amazement on a rutted dirt road separating the house from the acres and acres of soybeans planted nearby.

For years, they had been on the lookout for a tenant house that would offer Oak View park visitors a broader glimpse of Wake County’s agricultural past.

Tenant farmers and sharecroppers played a major role on the cotton plantation, Catherman said, but none of their homes were standing.

But then the county bought about 150 acres of farmland off Eagle Rock Road in eastern Wake County. An old tenant farm house was part of the property.

Fryar and Catherman reminisced about that December day three years ago when they first saw the house. They had been skeptical as they made their way along the winding roads to the site.

“But as soon as we came down that stretch,” Fryar recalled, “and I saw that steep pitch roof, I knew it was going to work.”

The roof, at least 9-feet tall, was taken off the structure for the move. Boards were numbered and stored inside the hull of the house.

On Saturday, after the house is firmly planted on its new foundation, workers will begin to raise the roof again and tend to other structural renovations necessary before the public can cross the threshold to another time.

“It adds to the value of Historic Oak View County Park,” said Staehle. “It gives folks an opportunity to see something rather than just hear about it. It makes the story more complete.”

The farm’s history

The story begins in 1829, when Benton Southworth Donaldson Williams purchased 85 acres of land in eastern Wake from Arthur Pool for $135.

Several outbuildings were on the property. And over the next 30 years, Williams added to his holdings, buying more land and completing construction of the main farmhouse in 1855.

Williams, one of four delegates representing Wake County during the 1868 North Carolina Constitutional Convention, was not counted among the so-called “planter” class – the wealthier people of the time.

But he was a successful farmer, records show. His family owned 10 slaves and produced 10 400-pound bales of cotton per year by 1860.

When Williams died in 1870, his land was divided among his four children and his wife, Burchett.

Over the years, the farm became manager-operated. Instead of using sharecroppers to farm the land, as was common during this time, the family hired a property manager to live in the main house and oversee the operations of the farm and tenant farmers.

Several tenant families lived in small houses on the farm and were paid a wage for their work.

Though none of those houses remain, Catherman said the new addition will offer a fairly close resemblance.

House renovations

In 1911, as cotton became more prevalent in the eastern part of the state, a pecan grove was planted to diversify the farm’s operations. In 1940, the farm was sold to Gregory Poole, and although his family members lived at Oak View for only three years, they are largely responsible for the present appearance of the main house.

The house was remodeled and expanded. An indoor kitchen, sunroom and library were added. Modern plumbing and indoor plumbing followed. In 1944, shortly after all the renovations were complete, Poole sold the farm to William and Mary Bryan, the last to operate Oak View as a family farm.

Wake County acquired Oak View’s 72 acres in 1984, but not before Chauncey and Ella Mae Jones, the owners after the Bryans rented out land once again to tenant farmers. The farm’s newest structure, with its 1870s look and feel, will offer a new visual for an old story.

“That’s an important story that needs to be told,” Catherman said.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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