Christmas At The Palace

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At the John Wright Stanly House, a two-story Georgian structure with gray board siding built in 1783, the time was now Christmas 1780s. On that day the home’s owner would have worshiped at Christ Episcopal Church and perhaps enjoyed a card game; his teak card table was set with antique cards and ivories, or chips. The Dixon-Stevenson House presented Christmas in the 1830s, when the gracious clapboard dwelling was the brand-new home of a mayor of the town. Now the holiday was starting to come more into its own: Stockings were hung on the stairs, having been made popular by the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823, gifts were just beginning to be exchanged, and one of the cakes on the sideboard was frosted with chocolate, a new ingredient in baking despite centuries as a familiar beverage.

The Commission House brought Christmas right up into living memory. One room was set up as a Victorian parlor at holiday time, but another reproduced Christmas during World War II, with a tree sprayed with Ivory soap flakes for artificial snow, molasses cakes set out because sugar was rationed, a Lionel train set on the floor, and V-mail on the side table.

New Bern is the attractive sort of town that was far busier in its earlier years than ever since and therefore has been able to maintain an unusual portion of its old buildings intact. Its recorded history began in 1710 when a band of Protestants expelled from Baden and Bavaria arrived, led by a Swiss baron named Christopher de Graffenried, who named his settlement after his nation’s capital. The emigrants’ numbers had already been sharply reduced by ocean storms, disease, and French piracy; within a year they were almost wiped out completely in a raid by the local Indians. In 1713 Graffenried gave up and went home, but the village hung on and gradually grew to become the county seat and then the provincial capital.

The house that General Burnside used as his headquarters was later the home of the inventor of Pepsi-Cola.

By 1773 New Bern was the site of Committee of Correspondence meetings, to the consternation of Gov. Josiah Martin, who had taken over when Tryon moved up to become governor of New York. Martin led the Loyalist troops in the area’s first Revolutionary battle, which was a fiasco for his side: Patriots removed the floor of a bridge he had to cross at night, greased its runners, and took 850 prisoners as they fell into the creek below.

On January 16, 1777, North Carolina’s first state governor took the oath of office at Tryon Palace, but as war raged, the seat of government kept moving around, and it never settled in New Bern again. In 1791 George Washington, on a tour through the South, saw Tryon Palace and judged it “a good brick building but now hastening to Ruins.” Seven years later, derelict, it was destroyed by fire.

New Bern flourished as a shipbuilding center in the early decades of the Republic, but the railroads that made it a target for Union troops also spelled the end of its economic might. As a port and thus as a distribution hub it dwindled in importance, and by the 1930s it had, in the words of the WPA guide to North Carolina, “subsided into a placid river town.”

It was an extremely placid New Bern that I drove around to come clear into Christmas present after my Tryon Palace tours through Christmases past. Downtown remains a several blocks’ spread of two-story brick storefronts and nineteenth-century churches except for some empty patches where urban renewal carved its swath in the 1970s, and the town has a lovely section of very old houses near the Neuse River. Those blocks, crammed with riches, are especially attractive in December; by some general agreement almost every house has a single white electric candle in every window, and the effect is subdued and handsome.

On Johnson Street I passed compact sidehall Federal houses built in the early nineteenth century by prominent free blacks. At Johnson and East Front I admired an imposing brick Greek Revival house that Gen. Ambrose Burnside used as his headquarters when he commanded the occupying troops; it was later the home of C. D. Bradham, who invented Pepsi-Cola four blocks away. The house’s kitchen, slave quarters, and smokehouse are now a separate, very cozy-looking residence behind it. Across the street, behind an 1884 home, stands an ancient cypress under which Indian and Revolutionary War treaties were once signed. Driving down these narrow streets past these closely packed, perfectly maintained homes from past centuries, darkness settling over them, I found New Bern a picture of Christmas peace.

The next day I explored a side of the town where the past doesn’t mean peace, the side where the freed blacks and runaway slaves of the Civil War settled and then struggled long and hard just to be allowed to stay. This was James City, directly across the Trent River, a sleepy neighborhood of single-story cinder-block and brick dwellings on sandy land behind a fertilizer factory. It was Sunday morning; the streets were as quiet as if no one was there, but a mass of parked cars showed that a fair portion of the population was attending services at Pilgrim Baptist Church in the middle of town. James City doesn’t have many businesses, but I did run across a small building with a sign that said “James City Historical Society.” No one was there.