A NOTE FROM THE BLOGGER: Adventuring is a little bit about finding yourself, going into the unknown and a dash of learning about others. Sometimes you mix in a bit of wanderlust. While I still am on a fitness journey, I’m finding myself drawn to adventures that feed my soul and curiosity. This occasional series is an attempt to share those adventures with you. In this particular piece I logged a few miles as I was one of those who took a recent behind-the-scenes tour of Edenton, North Carolina’s historical sites. I’m a history nerd and if I wasn’t introverted, I’d probably be a re-enactor of history teacher.
While writing this I was told to “do what (Anthony) Bourdain would do.” I tried to give the details that make you feel like you were there, that show why this adventure matters. But I didn’t want to bore you. So hopefully, the writing gurus, Bourdain included, like this.
A look behind the ropes
What does it take to take care of many of the historic sites in downtown Edenton?
A little bit of detective work, a love of adventure, a love of sharing knowledge with others, and a disregard for a large paycheck.
“To work in public history, you have to be a nerd,” said Andrew Cole, with the North Carolina Historic Sites. The state agency manages the care and preservation of the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse and its lawn across the King Street, the Roanoke River Light House and the Jame Iredell House.
As part of the 50th anniversary of Edenton State Historic Site Visitor Center, Cole led several behind-the-scenes tours designed to let visitors learn about what goes into preserving the historic sites Saturday.
Tour included access to spaces that are not open to the public, including the storage closets and basement of the James Iredell House and access to the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse attic and bell cupola.
The tour also covered how historians manage, store, and maintain the various historical collections and common issues of and solutions to maintaining historic sites.
James Iredell House
James Iredell Sr. may have owned the property, now situated behind the post office, but he never saw what is now called the James Iredell House. He died in 1799 before it’s current incarnation was built in 1816.
The property itself was once flanked by a creek to the left, at what is now Broad Street. Back then, Gale Street, which is the back of the current property, was not existent. A small red building has always sat on the property, but Cole said historians don’t quite know what it was originally used for. Their best guess it that in 1756 when John Wilkins purchased the property, he built a starter home, one you would stay in until a bigger home was being built.
The building current is just a shell — just wooden board and planks with wavy glass-paned windows and a smoke detector. The far wall from the door is several shades of white — an attempt to recreate white-wash paint by roasting and grinding up oysters and adding water. The shades are due to the different wood types used to make the walls.
Cole said that the building is being prepared for restoration work. They hope to house an exhibit about African-Americans’ contributions to Chowan County. But in order to do that, they have to figure out what they need to do to keep their exhibits safe for generations to come. Things like adding electricity and regulating the building’s temperature come into play.
And no where is that preservation work more visible than in the basement of the James Iredell House. The original part of the house — the right section if you were looking at it from Church Street — has a basement. Cole said it was probably where the owners keep their cold goods — things that needed to keep cold like food. Since there wasn’t any trash service back then, they also buried their trash in the basement. Archeologists found a treasure-trove of artifacts while digging through the basement.
While inside the Iredell House, Cole showed visitors what goes into preserving the artifacts. When an item is received, paperwork is filled out. The location of the artifact when it’s on display is also documented. If it’s put into storage, that’s documented too. If an item is on loan and the owner wants it back, that’s also documented.
The documentation of history isn’t just a bunch of paperwork bureaucracy. Just asked Glenn Adams.
The 1767 Chowan County Courthouse
In 1965, when Adams was 52 years old, the Elizabeth City resident made his mark on the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse. In the attic, a perfectly preserved board has his penciled in business card. Adams was a crew leader who, along with others, dismantled the courthouse cupola down to its frame. Then they fixed the timbers and rebuilt it.
“Hope you like what you see!” he wrote, along with his social security number and then-address on Weeksville Road.
What visitors saw in the hot attic was a small walkway that led to the cupola. Around them were hand-hewn timbers supporting the courthouse roof. You could see the tabs that held the wooden paneling of the second floor rooms in place. The panels were big pieces that were lifted into place against the brick walls. There is a gap between the paneling and the brick, which made updating the courthouse’s electrical system easier that it would have been otherwise.
Behind a wooden door in the middle of the attic, Cole showed visitors the various ways the clock has been operated over the years. Then those daring enough to shimmy up a wooden ladder into a narrow opening, could go into the bottom half of the cupola, right below the windows. In the middle was a series of long poles attached to the clocks outside, keeping time. There was a rather large hole in the floor, where the weights once used to operate the clock were.
The cupola windows shined light on the courthouse bell, which was perched above. A rope was attached to its hammer, ready to strike whenever the rope was pulled. Between each window where lines of graffiti. Names, dates and other links to the past, hidden once again after everyone exited the attic.
Historic preservation in Edenton and elsewhere is important. You can read all the books and look at all the painting and photos you want, but until you visit history — see, hear and smell things from the same perspective as those who lived it — you’re missing its impact.
Places like the courthouse show us how Edenton and Chowan County residents lived for several centuries. The James Iredell house and its accompanying buildings — many of those on the property are from Bandon Plantation (now Arrowhead Beach), but that’s another story — show us how people lived in early America.
Our struggles and triumphs have been seen before and will be seen again. Having something tangible that makes you feel history in your soul, links us all.