From the front porch of the Blackwood Farm homestead off N.C. 86 south of Hillsborough, one feels happily lost in time.
The hum of trucks and traffic on nearby I-40 occasionally rolls across the pastures, betraying the speed of modern life. Beneath the canopy of massive maples however; there, among the ancient outbuildings, the rolling fields, the pond, and the pines one can easily imagine oneself nestled comfortably in the 19th century.
Here, one can close one’s eyes and envision an era when the passage of time wasn’t measured so much by a clock on the wall but by work to be done and sunlight left in the day.
The time has finally come, however, for the beauty of the 152-acre Blackwood Farm to be shared. The Orange County Department of Environment, Agriculture, Parks, and Recreation has invited the public to join the Board of Orange County Commissioners for the official opening of Blackwood Farm Park this Saturday, June 20, with a ceremony at 10 a.m.
Initially, public access at 4215 N.C. 86 (just north of New Hope Road) will be on a limited-hour basis, with the park open Fridays through Sundays, 8 a.m. – 8 p.m. Hours will be from 8 a.m. until 7 p.m. in April and September and from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. from October through March. The park will be closed on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and the following day, and December 23-25. To prepare the park for public use, added amenities include a picnic shelter, restrooms, and four miles of walking paths and trails.
Visitors will be able to see a slice of history, including path followed by the original Hillsborough-Chapel Hill Road, dating back centuries.
“That goes right by the house, and it’s so prominent,” said Orange County Land Conservation Manager Rich Shaw, who also served on the park’s master plan committee. “I jokingly call it ‘the Old, Old Route 86.’ It was the main connection between Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.”
According to the master plan report completed in 2011, the land had been farmed since the mid-to-late 1700s by some of the early European settlers of Orange County, including Scots-Irish and German immigrants. After a brief time, several families – including the Strayhorns and the Blackwoods – purchased land along a creek of the Haw River system, which they named “New Hope Creek.”
According to deed research, the Strayhorn family constructed the earliest portion of the house around 1827. Herbert and Alice Blackwood purchased the farm in 1906 and operated a dairy until the late 1950s, the report said, also raising corn, wheat, sweet potatoes, and cotton.
“In addition to the recorded European-American history on this site,” the report said, “there is archaeological evidence that both Native Americans and African-Americans lived and worked in this area.”
“There’s even an old 19th century cemetery there that could be from enslaved people,” Shaw said, “but we’re not sure until it’s more definitive.”
Shaw said that it was only fitting that Bob Strayhorn tend the farm since its purchase by Orange County in 2000.
“He actually learned to farm there,” he said. “His parents weren’t farmers – his father was with the railroad – but he learned to farm at Blackwood farm, and it’s been a labor of love for him to continue to tend that property on behalf of the county.”
Shaw added that conversion of the property to a public park was in keeping with the family’s wishes.
“When we entered the scene, the Blackwood family said they could’ve gotten more money from the developer, but they preferred to see it as a park,” he said, “and they said they’d love it if the Blackwood family name would continue to be associated with it.”
Upon its opening this Saturday, the park will boast four miles of hiking trails, a picnic shelter and tables, a fishing pond (requires valid fishing license for those over 16 years old and use of artificial bait only), expansive open fields, restrooms, an orchard, and the historic homestead and out-buildings.
“We’ve got the home, a garage, an old milking parlor, a corn crib, a chicken coop, and a building for cold storage,” said Parks Conservation Technician in charge of the Blackwood Farm Park Keith Barnhardt. “We can’t technically occupy the house until some work is done. I think, ultimately the idea would be to fix it up and have some interpretive displays in there about the park.”
Barnhardt admitted that there was one occupant who occasionally frequented the old house, however: a large black snake respectfully named “Herbert.”
“Herbert Blackwood was sort of the head of the family,” Barnhardt said, shaking his head and laughing. “I have an uneasy truce with snakes. He can do his thing, and I’ll do mine.”
Currently, parking is limited to a small lot near the homestead with overflow on adjacent grassy areas. There is only one entrance drive, however: a single lane with a big drop-off on both shoulders.
“The plan is to have a new entrance built, coming in a little further north from NC 86 which will be a little bit safer in-and-out for people,” Shaw said.
The property has already been the site for several jazz festivals, and Barnhardt imagined other public events which might be perfectly suited to the property.
“They do the big Farm to Table (initiative) every fall, and they may want to have some of that going on year round,” he said, “and we’ve planted some heritage apple trees to sort of beef up the existing orchard.”
Other future features on the property may include an amphitheater, community gardens, a fishing pier on the pond, a cultural / historical education learning center and adjacent playground, and an open field dedicated to agricultural demonstration.
“The park itself would have more of an agricultural heritage feel to it,” Shaw said. “It will just have some mowed fields for Frisbee or kite flying, but other than that, it will just be picnic shelters, trails, and just the beautiful views. The farm itself is quite lovely, with a beautiful view from New Hope Church Road. You look from there and you see the farmstead in the distance.”
Despite plans for future use, the most important plans will be to maintain the property in its present condition, such that future generations to can take a step back in time that’s more tangible than the pictures from a history book and more memorable than a Wikipedia entry.
“It would be interesting if, in the future, this place could present a living history,” Shaw said. “Someday, it would be nice to have farm animals, and maybe machines out there demonstrating farming activities, heirloom fruits and vegetables being grown, old-time tractors, mules pulling equipment: it would great to be able to see a real living farm out there.”