A Stop at Historic Stagville

Stagville_signHistoric Stagville, located in Durham County, North Carolina, was part of a massive southern plantation complex—one of the largest in the American south before the Civil War. Owned by the Bennehan-Cameron family, the grounds consisted of 30,000 acres, (that’s about 47 square miles!), maintained through the use of nearly 900 enslaved workers.

The use of slavery for colonial expansion, in my humble opinion, was not America’s finest hour. Stagville, nevertheless, is an informative glimpse into that hour. The Bennehan-Cameron family left behind an abundance of documents, (now in the archives at UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State), that paint a detailed picture of daily life on a southern plantation. Those documents, combined with archaeological finds, provide some of the most helpful resources available for understanding the cultural traditions practiced in an early Africa-American community.

Recently, I visited the plantation after exploring the nearby Horton Grove Nature Preserve. What follows is a “picture tour” of my recent stop at Stagville.


In 1787, Richard Bennehan bought 66 acres of land from Judith Stagg. In those early days, he operated a store and built the original portion of Bennehan House; (pictured here). The Staggs owned the popular Stagg’s Tavern along the Old Indian Trading Path, making the Stagg name widely known. Bennehan described his location as Stagville so that it would be easily identifiable to everyone. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


In 1799, Richard Bennehan added the two-story portion to the house. By this time, Bennehan was well on his way to becoming one of the wealthiest men in North Carolina. His store was thriving, as was his plantation. During his lifetime, he would serve on the committee that laid out the City of Raleigh, and he supported the establishment of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  — Benneham House at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The kitchen garden behind Bennehan House is a recalling of the antebellum (pre-Civil War) south. With its drying pumpkins and late October blooms, it was one of my favorite spots.– Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Dominique chickens, America’s first chicken breed, roam free-range down by the barns near the Bennehan House. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Oh, you know I did! …Set about 100 yards from the Bennehan House, atop a small ridge in the woods, the family cemetery was fun to explore on a late October morning. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The cemetery’s stone wall and iron entry gate are original. The stones were quarried on Stagville land, and the wall’s design is unusual: the stones are wider at the base than the top. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Richard, Mary (wife), and Thomas (son) Bennehan are buried here in the family cemetery at Stagville. Their box tombs, ordered from Philadelphia, were standard in England and preferred by the “southern elite” in America. The cemetery is large…and largely unfilled. Richard Bennehan likely expected more of his descendants to be buried there. Many, however, are buried at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

Just a short drive down Old Oxford Road to Jock Road is Horton Grove, where the enslaved community of Stagville resided.


Tucked into one corner of Horton Grove is Horton Home. Built in the 1770’s by a yeoman farmer named William Horton, it is believed to be the oldest house on its original foundation in Durham–perhaps one of the oldest houses in all of North Carolina. Richard Bennehan purchased the house and over 410 acres of land (Horton Grove) from the Horton family in 1823. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The four, two-story slave quarters at Horton Grove were built between 1851 and 1860. The timber frames on the outside and brick nogging on the inside were not typical features of enslaved homes in the south at that time. These features provided insulation from the heat and cold and also deterred rodent infestation. Records reveal that Paul Cameron, (who had inherited Stagville from his uncle Tom Bennehan), personally designed these structures, (which were built by the slaves), to provide a healthier living environment for his slaves. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Inside one of the slave’s quarters, there is evidence of both architectural ingenuity, (that is, brick nogging for insulation), as well as the undeniably primitive nature overall of the dwelling. There were four rooms total, two upstairs and two downstairs. An entire family, (often 10 to 13 people), lived in one room of the house. The four families that lived there all entered through the front door and dispersed to their various dwelling spaces. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Sunday was a slave’s day off. The families often pulled their resources together–some meat here, some vegetables there–and cooked them together on the fire in front of the quarters. — Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


The chimney on this slave shelter is original. — Horton Grove at Stagville Plantation; Durham, NC


Bricks for the chimneys were made and fired on the plantation. If the bricks were handled while still hot, fingerprints were left behind. Can you spot the indentation of a slave’s finger in the photo on the left? How about the prints in the photo on the right? These are thought to be a child’s footprints. (I’m a bit skeptical. Couldn’t they, too, be hand or knuckle prints?) — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Stagville Barn, referred to as the “Great Barn,” is a sturdy sight that once housed up to 80 mules. Built in the summer of 1860 by skilled slaves, the barn contains some unusual “nautical” features, particularly the way in which the roof trusses were constructed like an upside-down haul of a ship–referred to as queen’s trusses. Historians speculate that one or more of the slaves may have spent some time in shipyards along the coast. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC


Hope and hard work: The Hart House is a bright spot in the story of Stagville. After the emancipation, the Harts were freed slaves who worked as sharecroppers and rented this former slave quarters. (The house once looked like all the rest: simple, with natural-colored, vertical timber siding.) The Hart family not only farmed the land but also used their skills as blacksmiths in the growing Durham area. As a result, they were able to purchase the house and make the renovations pictured here. — Horton Grove at Historic Stagville; Durham, NC

For a comprehensive look at the antebellum south, consider a visit to Historic Stagville. Free guided tours as well as self-guided tours are available most days.

Little Prairie on the Upper Neuse: Horton Grove Nature Preserve

The sidewalk ended. The billboards, gas stations, and fast food restaurants of Durham, North Carolina, faded from view. I spotted a pumpkin stand and a large banner announcing a “Holy Ghost Weenie Roast” before the landscape changed to fields and ponds, livestock and horses. I passed a sign for “Free Frogs.” I blinked hard and looked again. “Free logs.” I pondered the questionable nature of my new contact lens prescription until I was interrupted by Siri, my iPhone personal navigator.

“You have arrived at your destination, 7360 Jock Road.” Siri stated, then fell silent.

I stared down a gravel road with forest on both sides. Was this really Horton Grove Nature Preserve?

It was. All 700-some acres of it.

About a mile down the gravel road, I saw the wooden sign for the preserve and pulled into the wide circular parking area.


North Durham County, North Carolina

Established in 2012, the preserve offers approximately four miles of trails surrounded by tall grasses and forested areas that meander along the Upper Neuse River Basin. Horton Grove, itself, dates back to pre-Civil War times. The preserve was part of Stagville Plantation. (Stay tuned! I’ll be writing all about that historic place soon.)

There wasn’t another car in sight. And, I have to say, it was a bit eerie. Beautiful, yes, but also a bit too remote for a lone explorer. My window was rolled down—as it ought to be on a temperate, sunny day ride. The gentle breeze swept through the pines and oaks like a trumpet call. Insects offered their own harmonious strains, and birds of various voices sang the melody.

I stayed within sight of my vehicle and photographed scenes from the 20-acre meadow surrounding the parking lot.


Information stations by the parking area at Horton Grove Nature Preserve tell about the history of the area, the nature of a prairie and its inhabitants, and a map of the trail system. (North Durham County, NC)


From my bird’s eye view in the parking lot, I could see bird feeders stationed throughout the meadow and along the prairie trail. Perfect for bird watchers! — Horton Grove Nature Preserve; North Durham County, NC


Wildflowers sprout up among the tall Indian grass, a native prairie grass that is allowed to mature to heights of up to 8 feet tall. Pollinators such as butterflies, moths, and bees (like the one pictured here) help sustain plant life and ensure the growth of our food.


God’s amazing creation at work: Did you know that 1 out of every 3 bites of food that we eat are brought to use by pollinators? — Horton Grove Nature Preserve; Durham County, NC


Just off the parking area, in the 20-acre meadow, is the 0.8 mile Holman Loop. There all three trails at Horton Grove Nature Preserve, each one named after a slave family that endured on the Stagville Plantation. The other two trails are the Justice Loop (1.6 miles) and the Hart Trail (0.6 miles). — North Durham County, NC

There are plans to extend the trail system (from four miles to ten) and to link the preserve to the Stagville Historic Site. If you’re exploring Durham and its surrounding resources, consider Horton Grove Nature Preserve. It’s quiet, primitive, and picturesque. Also, consider taking a friend or two. Have fun exploring and be safe!

Raining Cormorant and Ducks


The first part of this week, it rained cats and dogs. Or should I say, cormorant and ducks?

I was passing through Duke Gardens in a drizzle-turned-downpour-turned-drizzle on Tuesday when I discovered a different perspective of the place. It was as though, for a brief moment, the Gardens belonged solely to its ‘natural’ inhabitants—the wildlife.

As I traveled the main path between the Historic Garden and Asiatic Arboretum, a gaggle of ducks congregated along the walk, wading in the puddles and grooming their feathers.


I looked to my right, toward the garden pond in the Asiatic Arboretum. Behold! there was a double-crested cormorant perched on the bank. It was the first cormorant I’d ever seen at the Gardens.


A double-crested cormorant along the edge of the garden pond. — W.L. Culberson Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

The cormorant decided on a dip, swimming around the pond with its hooked bill tipped upwards. Perched nearby was a large duck with a bright red beak. It was a stout sight that looked like a cross between a rooster, a turkey, and goose. It was, in fact, a male muscovy duck.


A double-crested cormorant takes a rainy-day swim as a muscovy duck stands along the bank. — Asiatic Arboretum at Duke Gardens in Durham, NC


A muscovy duck standing in the rain. Duke Gardens; Durham, NC

One by one, the mallards cleared the path, taking flight and touching down on the garden pond, making way for me to pass. As I did so, I looked to my left—over by the Iris Bridge along the edge of the Historic Garden—and saw something that surpassed the mallards and muscovy and rivaled the double-crested cormorant. It was a Great Blue Heron perched atop a weeping tree, right there in the middle of the pouring rain.


On a rainy day, this Great Blue Heron heads for higher ground down by the Iris Bridge in the Historic Garden at Duke Gardens. (Durham, NC)


A Great Blue Heron by the Iris Bridge at Duke Gardens. (Durham, NC)

The rain tapered to a drizzle. Much of the wildlife retreated beneath the trees or behind the brush, and the Gardens slowly filled with visitors once again.


The Duke Gardens Terrace on a rainy October morning. Durham, NC

Sunday in the South: The Hill House Edition

Hill_House_front3 On my way to church this morning, I passed a familiar site: a Spanish Colonial mansion perched atop a hill along South Duke Street in Durham, North Carolina. The white-stuccoed beauty is referred to locally as Hill House. Mistakenly, I thought it was so named because it sits on a hill. Actually, the house is named after its original owner, John Sprunt Hill.

On my way home, I stopped at Hill House to get a closer look. Despite a hospitable sign on the side door that read “Come on in!” the mansion, (which is a venue for meetings and events), was not really open to visitors at that Sunday hour, so my exploration was purely external.

Hill House was built in 1912 by Boston architects, Kendall & Taylor. The two had just completed work on the nearby Watts Hospital, an effort that was funded by ‘tobacco tycoon’ George Watts, Hill’s father-in-law. Hill House was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1978.


Baroque accents adorn the Hill House, a Spanish revival style mansion in Durham, NC.


The side view of historic Hill House is as attractive (if not more so) than the front. (Durham, NC)

Owner John Sprunt Hill attended the University of North Carolina (UNC). He was a teacher in the state before going on to attend law school, first at UNC then transferring to New York City’s Columbia Law School. Hill lived in New York for several years, during which time he served in the U.S. Army (Spanish-American War), opened a law practice, and married Watt’s daughter, Annie Louise. After the birth of their first child, Hill and his wife returned to Durham in 1903, where Hill and his father-in law, Watts, forged a powerful business partnership (mostly banking, insurance, and real estate) that generally withstood the Great Depression.

As a lawyer, banker and philanthropist, Hill’s contributions to Durham, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina at large are significant and many. He helped to establish farmer-based state credit unions and served on the state highway commission. He contributed to the City of Durham’s purchase of Durham Athletic Park, which was home to the Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994. Additionally, Hill donated generously to UNC’s campus expansion and contributed funds to the North Carolina Collection of the Wilson Library at UNC. Hill also built the Carolina Inn in 1924, later donating the property to UNC in 1935. He was a state Senator from 1933-1938.

Hill died in 1961, at which time Hill House became part of the Annie Watts Hill Foundation, which was established in memory of Hill’s wife who died in 1940. The Foundation exists to support female civic organizations, and Hill House serves as a meeting place to cultivate female volunteerism and leadership in the community.

Today, the weather was perfect for a stroll around the property. Despite being in downtown Durham, with commercial buildings in plain view, there was a quiet peacefulness–and a sense of timelessness– about the place. Despite its representation of wealth and prestige and worldly accomplishment, I caught a few simple, natural pleasures through the lens of my camera.


A mockingbird perches on the roof of Hill House. (Durham, NC)


Along the red-tiled roofline of Hill House, a song sparrow sits on a grassy rain gutter. (Durham, NC)


No elaborate gardens surround Hill House today, but I did spot a stray angel’s trumpet thriving at the rear of the historic mansion. (Durham, NC)


A sun-dappled pergola rests on a knoll at Hill House. Can you spot the squirrel? (Durham, NC)

Adjacent to Hill House is Orchard Park, a City of Durham public recreation spot. The grounds of Orchard Park once sustained life at Hill House. Among other things, it’s where the horses were stabled, and where fruit and vegetables were grown.


The grounds known today as Orchard Park played a key role in day-to-day life at Hill House during its heyday. Today, Orchard Park is a community garden and playground.


In Orchard Park today, remnants of Hill House’s greenhouse remain, with park benches added for reflection and relaxation. (Durham, NC)


The foundation of the greenhouse, once used to grow the flowers and plants for Hill House, still remains in Orchard Park and serves as a labyrinth. (Durham, NC)

As I was driving away, I found myself humming a tune by Shenandoah that I hadn’t thought of in years.

Just another Sunday in the south.