Wake County

Before there was a Raleigh, there was Isaac Hunter’s tavern. It was lost, now it’s found.

Forty-eight years ago, a pair of state archaeologists went in search of a 200-year-old tavern that was the scene of an historic event in North Carolina history but had seemingly disappeared.

When they found it, the dilapidated tavern — near Wake Forest Road just north of what is now the Beltline — the scientists urged immediate action to preserve the structure. But that didn’t happen.

Instead, Isaac Hunter’s Tavern slipped from sight again, disappearing over time into acres of trees and dangling vines until few clues were left that it had ever stood there. Until now, after development plans for the woods were announced this summer, once again stirring the saga of the old tavern.

The story of Hunter’s tavern shows how easily history slips through a community’s collective memory in a fast-growing place like Raleigh.

“If we don’t know from whence we came we have no idea where we go,” said Brenda Holloman, president of the Wake County Historical Society. “All these things in our history come to this point in 2017 to make Wake County a destination for our nation. If we don’t preserve what we know about Isaac Hunter’s Tavern, in another 10, 15 years it will all be gone.”

Efforts to save it

The tavern was once a popular stopover along a well-traveled north-south route. In 1788, the state’s constitutional convention decreed that the state capital would be no more than 10 miles from Hunter’s tavern, and later state officials met there to choose a site.

Around 1922, a manor house was built near the tavern and occupied by J. Crawford Biggs, a prominent lawyer and state legislator who became solicitor general under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president and his wife were among those who attended the many social events at the Biggs’ house, according to the historical record.

In the mid-1930s, Biggs moved the tavern from his front yard to several hundred feet behind it, where it was eventually used as quarters for a tenant farmer and later for livestock, before falling into total disrepair. The Biggs house, which by then was vacant, was destroyed by fire in 1976.

Longtime historian J.C. Knowles of Apex said in a recent interview that he had held a two-day auction of furnishings in the Biggs House and had struck a deal to do it for a smaller commission than he would typically charge in exchange for the tavern, which he hoped to save.

“I was going to try to save it,” Knowles said in a recent interview. “I went out there one day with someone to look at it and when we got there it was gone. Nobody notified me.”

As it came, so it went

Seven years earlier, finding and preserving the tavern had been important enough to the Wake County Historical Society that it commissioned a study on how to go about it.

On a February afternoon in 1969, archaeologists started looking for it at the Biggs house, acting on the historical society’s and their own research pinpointing the tavern in an 1822 map with an aerial photograph from 1938, although nothing was visible then.

Using a steel probe, they confirmed that a building had once occupied the front yard, according to their report filed with the state Department of Archives and History. As they prodded the ground, a man walked up and told them he grew up in the area and was a child when the tavern building was moved behind the Briggs house. The man said he used to live in it.

When they inspected the building behind the house, the archaeologists found it was typical of 18th century structures and still had some of the original wooden boards in place. It appeared to be Hunter’s tavern, they concluded, and represented an important piece of North Carolina history.

They laid out a list of immediate steps that should be taken to save the building, and called for more in-depth analysis of the tavern and the front yard of the house. They recommended it be renovated and returned to the front yard.

“Once relocated on the original site it should then be restored so that it can continue to survive the assault of the years of the next two centuries as well or better than it has managed to survive that of the past two hundred years,” they wrote.

The Wake County Historical Society issued a news release later that year announcing the discovery of the tavern.

Whether any further steps were taken is not recorded in state or Historical Society records.

“We don’t know the answer to that,” Holloman said. “It just seems to have all gone away – as it came, so it went.”

Amateur historians on the case

In July, real estate development firm Dewitt Carolinas announced it had acquired nearly 20 acres of land along St. Albans Drive just north of the Beltline abutting Kane Realty property adjacent to North Hills. The deal provides a combined 40 acres to develop into a mixed-use project in the city’s growing midtown.

It also caught the attention of Benj Edwards, a freelance technical writer and budding historian who grew up nearby. In 2013, Edwards had become curious about the tavern after seeing news reports about moving a historic home to make way for development. He remembered seeing a state historical marker about the tavern on Wake Forest Road.

Edwards dug into records, interviewed a longtime neighboring landowner, and overlaid aerial maps he found online with mapping software in search of Isaac Hunter’s Tavern. Then he set out on foot to explore the woods near the Hilton Hotel, which is where the old Biggs house had stood and currently houses a display case about the history. On his second visit, he found remnants of a structure: nails with square heads, corrugated tin, rotted beams, pieces of concrete and stone.

“It was pretty exciting,” he said. “Why doesn’t everyone know it’s here? Why are we not protecting it? That’s the fascinating thing about untouched woods – they could hold all sorts of secrets. Once turned up, they’re gone.”

It turns out Edwards was one of several amateur historians intrigued by the tale of the tavern, including some who blogged about their searches. One of them was Mark Turner, a former member of the city parks board who last December also found the remnants, after exchanging emails with a descendant of Hunter’s.

Recently, Turner returned to the site with a News & Observer reporter. After a five or 10 minute search through the brambles, a clearing came into view. In the middle of the site were about two dozen stones placed side by side on the ground, concrete slabs, rotted wood with square nails, and a sheet of tin. Pieces of a concrete bench align a relative’s recollection of a garden bench.

“I was always curious about this building, the fact that we owe our state capital to it,” Turner said. “I thought it was pretty important that people know where to find it. There were a lot of poor decisions, as far as keeping our historical heritage, made back in that time.”

The N&O shared its findings with the state Historic Preservation Office, which pulled out its old maps and confirmed that was the likely location of the tavern.

“It’s probably not much as an archeological site,” said Claudia Brown, branch supervisor for the state office. “The original site is under a parking lot, and we think the slabs in your photo were landscape features, perhaps from the Biggs house.”

History slips away in many ways.

Todd Saieed, the developer on the project, also grew up in that part of Raleigh. He remembers as a kid playing in a vacant tavern, although he remembers it being on the east side of Wake Forest Road, not the west.

Craig Jarvis: 919-829-4576, @CraigJ_NandO