February/March 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 1
A colonial capital remembered for its women
“How did you hear about the Pilgrimage?” asked a volunteer at the Barker House when I showed up to buy a ticket. “Newspaper? Radio? We like to know what works.” In fact it was an accident that brought me to town last April. A lull in science-fair projects at home and the chance to meet up with an old college friend happened to coincide with the spring weekend, once every two years, when Edenton opens its private houses to the public. Following the lead of larger Southern cities like Natchez and Charleston, Edenton calls its tour, a tradition since 1949, the Pilgrimage, a word that conveys the reverence this part of the world attaches to home and family.
Edenton, in northeastern North Carolina, sits on a small peninsula on Albemarle Sound. Founded in 1722 and named the colony’s capital six years later, Edenton became a busy port, shipping lumber, food crops, and slaves. Confident in the future, lawyers and merchants built houses, organized a church, and put up a court-house. But just as Edenton was coming into its own, its fortunes began to decline. In 1766 the capital was moved to New Bern, and after 1805 the Dismal Swamp Canal diverted shipping 30 miles to the northeast. Although Edenton never regained its early prominence, it never lost its appeal. It’s still eighteenth century in scale, with homegrown shops, a wide variety of house styles, and a double supply of the porches that offer a window on a town’s interior life. Sadly, Hurricane Isabel flooded houses and toppled century-old trees here last August. When I called to commiserate, one staunch resident said, “The view is better now.”
To be first in line for the Pilgrimage, I arrived a day early and checked into the Lords Proprietors’ Inn, named for the eight men to whom Charles II gave a large slice of North America, including the Carolinas. (Ask for a room in Pack House, made from an old tobacco barn, where you can make your own coffee early in the morning and rock on the porch while Edenton wakes up.)
On most days the visitors’ center offers walking and trolley tours led by expert guides, but everyone was busy preparing for the Pilgrimage. “We usually start people at St. Paul’s Church, just around the corner,” said the manager, Linda Jordan Eure, as she showed me the route on a map, “and then we take them by the houses along Church Street, South Granville, and West King.” The churchyard, set aside in 1722, hints at village life in a way no private residence can. A weathered fence the silvery color of driftwood encloses the grounds, and many of the family names hand-carved on gravestones—Badham, Benbury, Coffield, Leary, Wood—still appear on houses, streets, and businesses nearby.
Following the route laid out on the map, I walked tree-lined streets past Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, and Queen Anne houses. (These turned out not to be the ones that opened the following day; Edenton has historic houses to spare, and those on the tour change from year to year.) Edenton’s commercial street, South Broad, slopes down to the 1782 Barker House, a handsome two-story residence overlooking Edenton Bay. Just offshore, clumps of cypress trees rise out of the water like miniature islands.
Thomas Barker was a lawyer, planter, and colonial agent who spent the pre-war years in London, leaving his second wife, Penelope, back in Edenton. When word came of the Boston Tea Party, delegates to a special North Carolina assembly met in the summer of 1774 and voted to boycott British tea and cloth. On October 25 that same year Penelope Barker called a meeting of local women, and 51 of them signed a document pledging to back the assemblymen in giving up British goods. The Edenton Tea Party, as their gesture came to be called, is believed to be the first purely political action by women in the American colonies. (In response a London newspaper published a caricature of masculine-looking mothers neglecting their children, calling it “A Society of Patriotic Ladies at Edenton in North Carolina.”)
From the Barker House I wandered over to the town green, which slopes from the brick Chowan County court-house, built in 1767, down to the bay. Near a bronze teapot mounted on a cannon, a monument to the town’s revolutionary past, I fell into conversation with a woman in a broad-brimmed straw hat. She introduced herself as Vivian Barbee Coxe, and she turned out to be the author of a children’s book about the Edenton Tea Party. “I think these wives were even braver than the men in Boston,” Coxe said. “The women here signed their names. The men disguised themselves.”
The following morning I set off on the Pilgrimage. When you buy a ticket, you receive a booklet with a map and a description of the 20-odd buildings in the town and countryside that will be open. You also get a firsthand look at Southern style. “Remember,” said my innkeeper, Jane Edwards, as I pulled out of the driveway, “here in the South it’s all about flower arrangements.”
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.