In some respects, a Johnston County farmhouse differs little from a European castle: The spaces we occupy and the times we occupy them in offer a setting for the stories in our histories and tell some stories themselves. Wood, brick, glass and steel hold many of Johnston’s tales and can speak volumes for how the Johnston of old became the Johnston of now.
A few hundred of those stories have been compiled in a new book, an inventory of important buildings in the county called “The Historic Architecture of Johnston County, North Carolina.” Published in December by Keep Johnston County Beautiful, the book was more than three decades in the making and arrives at a point in the county’s history where, for some, preservation and curation are increasingly more important. The book, begun in 1981, is based largely on a survey by historian Thomas R. Butchko; it was later edited and updated by Todd Johnson, director of the Johnston County Heritage Center.
Many of the county’s important buildings are tied to Johnston County’s agricultural roots, Johnson said. And while those structures might appear unimportant, they are rich in explaining the culture and identity Johnston sees when it looks in the mirror, he said.
“Johnston County has very strong ties to agriculture that persist to this day,” Johnson said. “It’s a very important story, and a lot of that story is told through the buildings. The smokehouse, the detached kitchen, the corn crib. Anything that tells that story, I hope people think twice about tearing down.”
Also in the book are two Rosenwald schools, part of a national program to establish black schools in communities, and one of the few Freedman’s schools in the county. Churches, farms and downtown buildings are included too.
“Some are vernacular, simple farmhouse and outbuildings,” Johnson said. “The larger architectural influences came from the outside. The oldest we know of is White Oak Plantation, or the Sanders Hairr House in Cleveland, which is an example of Georgian Federal. In the 1830s, Greek Revival was very popular, some Gothic Revival. The book is examples of all these architectural styles. It’s not all inclusive of the county’s history; we wished we could have a complete inventory, but it’s three to 400 of the best representative examples.”
In a county dating back several centuries, an architectural history in 2016 is less an inventory of what’s here than what’s left. Many of the buildings in the book are not only upright, they’re lived in or used. But others have fallen into disrepair or fallen away altogether.
Johnson said the two most important buildings in the county are long gone. One, a Market Street home in Smithfield built by former slave Ashley Smith, was eventually demolished to make way for the Belk department store. The other, the Ashley Horne Mansion on Main Street in Clayton, was torn down in the 1970s to make room for a grocery store that never came.
Johnson said the latest loss occurred as recently as Thanksgiving weekend, when the L.D. Wood Farm house in the Cleveland was torn down to make way for a subdivision. He said he drove by the house, unaware of its impending doom, and saw two piles of rubble. Like others included in the book, Johnson said, the Wood house represented a movement in Johnston County more than a century ago toward ornate over plain, something we might call country chic today.
“This was during the early stages of Johnston County’s Gilded Age, and many leading farmers and merchants wanted to show the Old South was giving way to a more progressive and prosperous New South by replacing the plainer, vernacular styles of architecture with the more exuberant Queen Anne, Italianate and Neoclassical styles,” Johnson said. “The demolition of this picturesque house and its surrounding farm buildings located on a beautiful knoll is a significant loss for our county and especially for the Cleveland community.”
Susan Woodard, president of Keep Johnston County Beautiful, helped take the book from stacks of files on the floor to, at last, a bound and published volume. The group raised printing funds, around $50,000, though donations at events like Festival of the Trees.
Many of the homes, Woodard said, are the embodiment of “they don’t make them like they used to,” some with hand-carved banisters and others built for purpose rather than fashion. She said she hopes the book will help guide the county going forward, encouraging citizens to remember the past as they plan the future.
“It’s been a huge, huge project,” Woodard said. “It’s a great gift to the county. The two greatest gifts a parent can give are roots and wings. This shows the roots of where the county came from.”
Buy the book
“The Historic Architecture of Johnston County, North Carolina,” written by Thomas R. Butchko and edited by Todd K. Johnson, is available at the Johnston County Heritage Center, 241 E. Market St., Smithfield. The cost is $40.