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(CIRCA Magazine – A Travel Column from the Wake Forest Historical Museum)
One of the best things about North Carolina is how close we are to history. Remember Schoolhouse Rock? Back when we were still watching Saturday morning cartoons, our great state was collecting some pretty cool animated shout-outs. And why not? The 13 original colonies were basically the prototype for modern celebrity – beautiful, adventurous, and a little bit cocky. I mean, come on. When the Louisiana Purchase was still just a gleam in Thomas Jefferson’s eye, North Carolina was already making history.
Maybe that’s why, when it comes to fascinating day trips, catching up on local history is at the top of my “Basket List.” It’s kind of a bucket list, but for those who rarely jet off to exotic locales. Can’t fly to the French Riviera for dinner at the Chateau de la Chevre d’Or? Go strawberry picking. Not brave enough to jump out of an airplane? Dare to taste that scary looking dark beer instead! Have to postpone the lion safari in Africa? Maybe it’s better to just find the cat. Looking for an authentic, open air museum packed with real-life drama and period artifacts that you can visit free of charge? Why, yes … I think we should do that!
With so many historic locations from which to choose (nearly 30 statewide), it’s hard to know where to start. That’s why I asked former administrator with North Carolina State Historic Sites, Ed Morris, to name his area favorites. As this year marks the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, Ed suggested we investigate the story of the Civil War and its aftermath in a single, kid-friendly day trip to two Durham County landmarks: Stagville State Historic Site and the Duke Homestead.
Once among the largest plantations in the South, Historic Stag-ville Plantation in northern Durham County was owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family. It was massive, eventually spanning 30,000 acres extending into what’s now downtown Raleigh. That’s how Cameron Village got its name. The plantation was also home to about 900 slaves, and its archived records are an important resource for thousands of African-Americans attempting to trace family histories.
Stagville is approximately an hour’s drive from Raleigh and Wake Forest, and your day should start here. Plan to wear comfortable, sturdy shoes and dress for the weather, as a good amount of walking will be required. It’s a great educational experience, popular with school field trips, and tours are typically given on the hour. If you’re really planning to make a day of it, your best bet is to arrive in the morning for the 11:00 AM tour, which begins with the Bennehan House. A white hilltop farmhouse constructed of heart of pine, somewhat spare by today’s standards, it was considered very elegant in its day. Built prior to 1800, the interior still has its intricate woodwork and some of the original windowpanes, ordered directly from England. It’s certainly elegant, and its juxtaposition to what comes next makes the experience almost haunting.
From the main residence, visitors can take their car or walk to an area known as Horton Grove. This is where the slaves lived. The modest, two-story structures have four rooms on each floor. Each dwelling would have housed several families and was built with interior brick to provide insulation and prevent rodent infestation. These are the only surviving homes of their kind in North Carolina and, although they’re not fully restored, they make an impact.
The slaves who lived on Stagville Plantation were responsible for building the tour’s final structure, the Great Barn, during the summer of 1860. Its large dimensions suggest the plantation owners had no idea the end was near. The barn housed the farm’s mules and was the last major structure built on the property before the start of the Civil War.
As there’s no food available on the plantation grounds, this is a day trip that simply screams for a lunch location where you can refuel before hitting historic site number two. And we’re talking a terrific lunch location, not some anonymous pit stop. According to Ed (who’s made these rounds countless times), there’s no better choice than Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue. Family-owned and operated since 1952, this bona fide institution is just a short drive from Stagville. Open for eat-in or take-out (though closed on Sundays and Mondays), Bullock’s also has a “wall of fame” decked with photos of famous patrons who also think their pork’s delish. Eat, enjoy, and then hop back in the car for a short jaunt to your next stop. And on the way, ask yourself this question: What do you get when you cross two blind mules, American Tobacco, and Mike Krzyzewski?
THE DUKE HOMESTEAD
The magnificent Duke legacy was born around the time of the Civil War when a humble man decided to plant a little tobacco. Washington Duke began as a tenant farmer, eventually acquiring several hundred acres and building the 1852 house known as the Duke Homestead. Although he was a unionist, Duke was drafted into the Confederate Army to fight in the last battles of the nearly defeated South. He found his farm a shambles upon his return. That’s when he decided to try curing bright leaf tobacco and start peddling it across eastern North Carolina in a broken wagon with two blind mules. Astonishingly, the business boomed. By the end of the 19th century, it had gone global, making the Dukes among the world’s richest and most philanthropic titans of industry.
Guided tours are offered 15 minutes past each hour. They include a curing barn, tobacco pack house, an early simple factory, and the Homestead. After that quick lunch, you should arrive just in time for the 1:15 PM tour. If you’re still curious afterwards and want to learn more, then definitely spend a few minutes in the 5,500 square foot tobacco museum and squeeze in a quick viewing of the award-winning orientation film, Legacy of the Golden Leaf. It’s a full day for the family that gets you home in time for dinner… and to finish any waiting laundry. If you’d like more information on any of North Carolina’s fantastic historic sites, just go to http://www.nchistoricsites.org for maps, calendars, and event updates. Happy historic trails!
Jennifer Smart is Assistant Director of the Wake Forest Historical Museum.