From a California coastal redwood to spruce trees that normally are found only in the mountainous regions of Taiwan, the Charles R. Keith Arboretum off Dairyland Road in Chapel Hill has more than 4,000 species of trees and shrubs. It is one of the largest arboretums in North America for the number of temperate woody species it contains. A list the plants at the arboretum can be seen at www.keitharboretum.org. This website also includes the mission of the arboretum, photos and awards received. The list was last updated a couple of years ago. During that time some of the labels on the plants have been disturbed by weather and animals; and during that time Dr. Keith; who is now 81 years old, has planted more species whose names have not made it to the website list. And now, after 50 years of planting and caring for the land and old homestead, Dr. Keith is putting it up for sale. Dr. Keith said that he is hoping the sale of the property will find someone with the passion and wherewithal to fund or raise the funds necessary to indefinitely extend the life of the arboretum.“This could be a great second home for someone who wants to get away from all the hustle and bustle of today’s world,” Keith said. “The buyer doesn’t have to be a horticulturalist, just someone who likes peace and quiet and has the wherewithal to hire someone else to take care of or help care for the plants and land.”History of TribairnDr. Keith moved with his wife, Barbara, onto the 20-plus-acre tract of land near the end of Marions Ford Road in 1963 when he was in his early 30’s. They moved into what is known by local historians as the Old King-Garrett homestead. At the time the Keiths moved there, the nineteenth century log cabins that formed the house were in dire need of repair, Keith said.The Keiths moved into the kitchen log cabin that was, he says, the first structure built on the property. “In the old days, the kitchen cabin was the first building to go up,” Keith said. “Then, when they could, they would build another house to live in away from the danger a kitchen fire could bring.”The old kitchen house with hand-hewn oak logs was built in the 1810s or 1820s and is now a work shed for the arboretum, Keith said. “You can’t pound a nail into those old oak logs now,” Keith said.Now the second structure built by the King family in the 1830s, the heartpine log cabin and fireplace, is to the right of the front door when entering the main house that also has a pine-floored parlor (circa 1890) with bead board ceiling, pine paneled walls and a wall of pine board bookshelves as well as another fireplace. The Garretts married into the King family in the late 1800s and lived in this house until the late 1940s and then moved out, Keith said. A group of professors bought the house and used the land to farm cattle and “failed miserably at it,” Keith said, “and then I bought it from them.”
The King-Garrett house hadn’t been lived in for 25 years until the Keith family bought it in 1963. The house did not have indoor plumbing; and the Garretts got their water out of a spring at the bottom of the hill, Keith said.
“A couple of carpenters said, ‘We would be glad to tear this house down but we are not going to remodel it for you,’” Keith said.
The man who helped the Keiths save the King-Garrett house is Mark Burnham, who is known more recently for building birdhouses that he sells at local Farmers Markets, Keith said. This house, with its many disparate parts, was the last house that Burnham ever worked on “as far as I know,” Keith said.
The property now has a five-person septic system and two water wells. There is an old well that is 90-feet deep that Keith says pumped water almost continuously night and day to the arboretum plants during a drought in the early 2000s and still provided water for Dr. Keith and his wife to use in the house. There is a newer well about 800 feet from the house that is 600 feet deep to provide water for more arboretum plantings.
The house, renamed Tribairn by the Keiths, now has about 2,200 square feet of heated living space, including two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a laundry/mud room and eat-in kitchen with a replica old-time cooking stove and oven that uses gas instead of wood. Tribairn means three in Scottish; and the Keiths raised three children there while Dr. Keith worked at Duke University as a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Science.
For all the care taken to rebuild this old homestead, none of the buildings are under historic preservation guidelines. Any of the buildings can be torn down and/or altered and new ones built to replace them as long as such buildings are in the furtherance of the Arboretum as an arboretum, according to the Forever Wild conservation easements put in place by Orange County to preserve the 22 acres as an arboretum.
When the Keiths moved onto the King-Garrett homestead, it was just an old pasture with nary a tree on it. Over the past 50 years, the Keiths added an additional 60 acres, all of which were put under the most restrictive “forever wild” conservation easements either through Orange County or the Triangle Land Conservancy.
“Nothing can be done to disturb the land,” Keith said.
Of the 60 additional acres, 20 have been sold recently to an adjacent landowner who runs a wild bird rehabilitation center.
That leaves approximately 40 acres of land under conservation easements through the Triangle Land Conservancy and an additional 22 acres that comprise the arboretum and are under conservation easements through Orange County.
Real Estate broker and listing agent for the arboretum and surrounding 40 acres of conservation lands is Gary Phillips of Weaver Street Realty. Phillips’ understanding from Orange County is that plants within the arboretum cannot be removed or cut down.
“No one can buy this property and make a horse pasture out of it,” Phillips said. “There are plenty of pastures nearby for horse lovers that I would be glad to show them.
“No, this property is special,” Phillips continued. “It’s for someone who loves woody plants and wants to live in the house or keep it as a second home. They can add onto the old house or tear it down and build a new one to suit their family’s needs; but a second residence cannot be built upon the arboretum lands; although a visitor’s center could be built to further the mission of the arboretum. ”