Where history (and furniture) was made

CorrespondentJanuary 26, 2013 

Union Tavern is also known as the Thomas Day House, as it was the site of both his business and home for 10 years.

GARY MCCULLOUGH

  • Details What: Union Tavern. Where: Milton. When: Open by appointment. Admission: $6. Info: 336-234-0030. Individual store hours vary in Milton, but most are open Friday-Sunday. Details: miltonnc.com.

Milton, near the Virginia state line in Caswell County, is home to the Union Tavern, also known as the Thomas Day House. Day was a free black cabinetmaker who lived in Milton from the 1820s until his death in 1861. From 1848 to 1858, when he occupied Union Tavern, he operated the largest furniture business in the state.

Distance

Milton is about 80 miles from Raleigh. Plan on a 90-minute drive.

To see and do

Located near the Dan River, Milton (a contraction of “mill-town”) was a trade and cultural center during the first half of the 19th century. Union Tavern, a Federal-style, two-story red brick building constructed in 1818, offered good food and drink and pleasant lodgings to visitors. The tavern is worthwhile in and of itself, but Thomas Day gives it added meaning and importance.

Day was born about 1801 near Emporia, Va., to a free black woman. At that time, the legal status of black children was defined by their mother’s status, so Thomas was free, as well. He moved to North Carolina in 1823 and gradually established a reputation as one of the state’s pre-eminent furniture craftsmen.

Day purchased Union Tavern in 1848 and used the building for the next 10 years as both shop and residence. In 1850, Day operated the largest furniture company in the state, using whites, free blacks and slaves in his shop. Since he was among the first to use steam-powered tools and mass production techniques, Day is regarded today as an early founder of the modern Southern furniture industry. During his lifetime, his furnishings were in high demand from Virginia to Georgia, and 150 years later, Day’s are among the showpieces in regional museums, including the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts in Winston-Salem and the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. Fortunately, many Thomas Day originals have found their way back to the restored Union Tavern. Tours of the building are given by appointment; they spotlight a variety of Day pieces and include a brief video.

In addition to Union Tavern, many other interesting buildings can be seen on the self-guided walking tour of the town, described as a “museum without walls.” One such structure is the 1837 Milton Presbyterian Church, with pews made by Thomas Day. Milton’s main street is lined with shops, including the Milton General Store, built in 1835. Originally a dry-goods store, it is now an antique and gift shop that also serves sandwiches and desserts. The White Owl has antiques, consignments and a bakery. Milton Studio Art Gallery sells paintings, pottery, prints, textiles and jewelry made by local artists.

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