From the front steps of her home on East Main Street, Mary Thomas-Compton points to the pillar a cannonball once struck, or so the story goes. She knocks on the base, listening for a hollow sound and smiles a skeptical smile.
“It’s a bit speculative,” she said. “But we use these kinds of stories to think about what it was actually like.”
For instance, Union Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman definitely passed through Clayton, but whether he camped on Thomas-Compton’s front lawn or down the road a piece, the historians might never know.
Clayton’s History Day on April 9 will celebrate what is known and give nod toward what is only speculation. This year’s event focuses on life during the town’s early days, including tar and turpentine making, along with Clayton’s first families and homes.
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It will be only the second History Day, with last year’s inaugural event held in Town Square and focusing on Clayton’s role in the Civil War. This year, the event will include tours of the J.M. Smith-Compton home, the large white house across from the post office and one of Clayton’s oldest surviving homes.
Visitors to the home will hear of the families who passed it down or sold the house, once part of a 500-acre, river-fronting homestead. They will hear too about the slaves who would have built and worked in the home.
Porter Casey is chairman of the Clayton Historical Association, which is organizing History Day with help from Hocutt-Ellington Memorial Library. He said the town is able to preserve its history because residents care about the past.
“Overall, the town has been a big help in promoting Clayton’s history,” Casey said. “Take the old primary school in the middle of town, it was refurbished into town hall. This was a major building and is now a beautiful structure that could not be replicated if you built something new.”
Without a visible history, one with century-old buildings still in use, Casey said Clayton could become just another town to drive by on the way to the beach.
“The town, not just our association, but the community and residents, believe it’s important to promote that type of revitalization,” Casey said. “It’s good for our community and downtown area. People heading east on 70 Business can make a left, drive a half-mile and be in a beautiful downtown area.”
Clayton was incorporated in 1869, meaning the Smith-Compton House, built in the 1850s, predates the town itself. The purpose of History Day, Casey said, is to bring back glimpses of that early history that can’t be preserved in a remodeled downtown building.
“Clayton has a rich history; so many things have happened here,” Casey said. “People can live their whole lives in town and not be aware of parts of its history. That’s why we put this event on, to celebrate the town’s founders and the events that occurred that shaped Clayton into the charming town it is today.”
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Clayton was a mill town and was once described as the wealthiest town of its size in the world. Casey said that wealth flowed from farming, particularly cotton and watermelons. The railroads and merchants played roles too.
Timber and tar-making also went on in the area, and the April 9 event will feature historian Bryan Avery, who will cut into a pine tree, removing the sap and demonstrating how tar and early sealants were made. The day will also offer weavers and spinners and the firing of muskets.
History Day will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the J.M Smith-Compton House at 613 E. Main St. It’s free to attend.
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson