- Historic Sites
At Home In Edenton
A colonial capital remembered for its women
February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
On the tour outside town were a church, a fish hatchery, and several plantation houses. At Mulberry Hill, built about 1810, both the front and back doors were open to catch the breezes, and volunteer guides in long dresses stood silhouetted in the entrance hall. The brick Federal-style house has been in the Woods family since 1865, one guide told us, and the latest scion and his bride are about to take up residence behind the wavy window glass, surrounded by beautiful woodwork and flaking mirrors.
Strawberry Hill, according to the tour brochure, was built in 1785 in “a transitional late Georgian-early Federal style with a side hall,” but these details made less of an impression than the stuffed pheasant on a table just inside the door and the goldfish swimming in a wide-mouthed porcelain urn in the dining room. The owners, Libby Pope and Jim Smith, let visitors exit through their back yard, much of which is taken up by a kennel for the Brittany spaniels Jim raises. To train the dogs, he keeps a flock of quail in a large screened cage. Quail aren’t easy to tame, he said, but he had brought up one of the birds in the house, and he stepped inside the cage to demonstrate that it still remembered him.
Opposite the quail cage was an old smokehouse filled with white pigeons. “You know,” said Libby, “to release at funerals and weddings.” Doing my best to sound as if I too raised interesting things at home, I mentioned my son Dan the magician, who had been begging for a pigeon, an urban riff on the traditional dove. “Bring him along next time,” Libby said. “We’ll give him one.”
In town we visited a one-room house built in 1743, an 1851 schoolhouse turned into a residence, and the mayor’s house, where armloads of Scotch broom, sun-flowers, porch laurel, and French tulips spilled out of vases on the mantel. At one house we pilgrims were asked to remove our shoes to help preserve the aging stairtreads. Tiptoeing upstairs in socks tends to break down barriers between tourists and natives.
Edenton’s most unusual building is the 1758 Cupola House, which has gardens on two sides, an overhanging second story rare for its time and place, and an octagonal tower. “Where are you from?” asked a friendly guide on the second floor, but when I told her, she gasped. “Brooklyn,” she said. “Why, you’re harboring the original paneling from downstairs!”
Cupola House was built for Francis Corbin, a land agent for one of the Lords Proprietors. By the turn of the twentieth century two elderly women were living there, selling off the furniture to meet expenses. In 1918 an antiques dealer stopped by and offered to buy the paneling, the mantels and overmantels, and even the staircase, which he sold to the Brooklyn Museum for the period rooms it was just beginning to assemble.
When Edenton residents found out, they quickly tried to buy the woodwork back. They managed to get the staircase, but everything else is now on display about a five-minute walk from where I live. (The Brooklyn Museum helped the Cupola House reproduce the paneling in the mid-1960s.)
Shame at my borough’s rapaciousness was tempered a little when I visited the museum and looked at photographs taken about the time the woodwork changed hands. The Cupola House then bore no hint of exterior paint; the sellers really did need the money. And a picture of the parlor showed the pediment above one mantel piercing the ceiling. It fitted so poorly in the room that the curators had concluded the woodwork wasn’t original to the house; the owner must have moved it from somewhere else and shoehorned it in.
My mother’s people come from North Carolina, and when I called her to report on my trip, she suggested I get in touch with her cousin in Chapel Hill, Henry Lewis, who keeps track of family history.
“Your mother’s grandmother, Jane Creighton, was Thomas Barker’s daughter by his first wife,” said Henry off the top of his head. “The house you saw was the house he and his second wife built.” Thomas and Penelope’s three children died in infancy; my great-grandmother was Barker’s only descendant.
Knowing that, I may round up a few relations and make a pilgrimage again.