Writer Lee Smith has had a long and surprisingly intimate relationship with the Burwell School Historic Site. One of the state’s earliest schools for girls, it sits just a block from her Hillsborough home and was the inspiration for Gatewood Academy in her 2006 novel, “On Agate Hill.”
Smith feels a deep commitment to its mission, which is dedicated to preserving the stories of the girls and young women who attended between 1837-1857, and those of the Burwell family, which went on to run Peace Institute (now William Peace University in Raleigh). When she learned that the nonprofit Historic Hillsborough Foundation was struggling to find $14,000 to paint the building’s exterior, she offered to call a few friends.
The result is a holiday-themed fundraiser, “Naughty and Nice!” Smith and fellow Hillsborough writer Jill McCorkle will be joined by Nashville singer-songwriters Marshall Chapman and Matraca Berg for the show Sunday, Dec. 11, in Hillsborough. It’s an updated take on the foursome’s off-Broadway musical, “Good Ol’ Gals.” (That show by Paul Ferguson was based on the stories of Smith and McCorkle and had a sold-out limited run off off-Broadway in 2010.) Smith plans to offer a sneak peek at her current project, a series of stories about older people to be titled “Silver Alert.”
Smith appreciates the accessibility of Burwell’s archives, which document the transformative impact of rigorous scholarship on girls who had few academic options. She is especially intrigued by the life of an enslaved young woman named Elizabeth Hobbs Keckly, who overcame brutal treatment to become a literate, gifted seamstress. After leveraging her entrepreneurial talents to buy her own freedom, Keckly became seamstress and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln.
Smith also cherishes the many visitors who travel to attend programs at the public site, although she wishes they’d learn the difference between its address and her own.
“I was upstairs writing in my study one day when I thought I heard all kinds of laughter,” says Smith, who has a This is Not The Burwell School sign posted in her yard. “Now, I’ve got a pretty active imagination, but when I went downstairs, I found my house filled with Red Hat Ladies who were expecting a tour.”
Smith, whose fictional characters often embody a similarly feisty good ol’ gal spunk, dutifully gave them a tour. When one of her elderly visitors asked about wine stocked in her kitchen, she poured a splash for each guest in a Dixie Cup. “Why not?” she says with a laugh. “Anyone who is that interested in the Burwell School is welcome in my home.”
“Naughty and Nice!”
When: 5 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. performance Dec. 11
Where: Leland Little Auctions, 620 Cornerstone Court, Hillsborough.
Cost: $75 or $125 to attend the after-party catered by LaPlace Louisiana Cookery at the Hot Tin Roof in downtown Hillsborough