Joe Spiers emerged from his mansion and stepped down on the damp ground. It was this past August, and a storm had dropped a huge branch from a tree, crushing part of the fence around the sheep pasture. Joe grabbed his chainsaw.
He’s well into his 70s, but his hands, those of a retired military pilot, are still strong. He cut through the heart of the branch cleanly. The branch dropped and settled back against the tree, just as Joe expected, and he set the chainsaw down. But then he saw movement, and turned, and the branch suddenly pitched out toward him. He tried to run but stumbled over the pile of limbs, and the branch crashed across his legs. He called to a friend who sometimes helps around the farm, and the friend cut the branch off of Joe. He stood, seemingly unharmed, and they both had a good laugh. Then it was back to work. Joe’s legs felt a little sore, but fences don’t repair themselves, and no good caretaker lets sheep roam free.
An hour and a half later, the fence was fixed, and Joe was beat. He returned to his mansion, dusted the filth off his jacket and his jeans, and walked through the back door, stepping into the kitchen.
This is Coolmore Plantation, Joe’s home and one of the most significant pieces of property in North Carolina, an Italian Villa built in 1860 for physician and cotton planter J.J.W. Powell and his wife, Martha. Weather and time and even war have passed through, and while other plantations have fallen, Coolmore has withstood it all.
It is a home and a museum, and Joe and his wife of 52 years, Janet, watch over it accordingly. Preservation North Carolina owns Coolmore, but because there’s no endowment for it, the organization has a unique arrangement with the Powell family — it leases the mansion and property back to direct-line descendants who want to live there and tend to it.
Joe Spiers is Powell’s great-great-grandson.
The work to maintain the house is demanding, but things are calm and quiet out here in the countryside between Tarboro and Rocky Mount, just the way Joe likes it.
After a career in the United States Air Force, Joe and Janet could have retired to any quiet space in the country. But they came here, to continue the family tradition of caring for Coolmore.
“I grew up all around this place,” he says. “It’s home. … It’s just a part of me.”
That day last August, as Joe walked back in the mansion, something felt different in his legs. He kissed Janet, then calmly said, “I think I need to go to the hospital.” She drove. Doctors diagnosed him with two broken ankles and a broken fibula — which meant that, at 73, he had worked an hour and a half, walking back and forth from fence to truck to storage building to fence, with three broken bones in his legs. He was given a wheelchair and a walker, and he wasn’t excited about either of them, or about being so helpless. But Janet was there to care for him, as always.
About two months later, Tarboro held its 250th anniversary celebration. Joe and Janet were in the choral group, and when he walked on stage, he did so without a walker or even so much as a limp. “Sort of like Superman,” lifelong Tarboro resident Ed Roberson recalled later.
Strength is ingrained in the Powell family line. When J.J.W. Powell died soon after the Civil War, he left his wife with a mess of children. She persevered, holding on to her family and their home, and the legacy of Coolmore began.
Take Joe: He learned how to fly at an airfield near Tarboro as a teenager, and he retired from the Air Force as a major general five decades later. In between, he flew 102 bombing missions in Vietnam and South Korea, and once done with that, he worked his way through his dream job as a test pilot for the Air Force. He became one of the best, logging more than 3,400 flight hours and earning nearly two dozen awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
His last name is Spiers, but his blood is indeed that of a Powell. Years ago, when it came time for someone from the Powell line to move back to Coolmore, Joe wasn’t sure he was the right choice. He wanted desperately to return to the plantation, but he wasn’t a Powell, he said. “Oh, please,” Janet told him. “Your mother just married a Spiers. You’re just as much a Powell as anyone else.”
And so they took over.
Coolmore may have lasted a century and a half, but to stay safe, it needs someone like Joe, someone with strength sort of like Superman’s.
“There’s a lot of history here,” Joe says. “And it needs to be preserved.”
Myrick Howard, executive director of Preservation North Carolina, regards the house as the centerpiece of the most significant antebellum plantation in the state. “The property is truly of exceptional importance for North Carolina and for the entire Southeast,” he says.
Architectural historian Peter Kurtze said that the central house, the mansion, might be the most important surviving work of E.G. Lind, the prominent Baltimore, Maryland, architect of the mid-1880s, and that its paintwork is “clearly the masterpiece” of Russian-born, Baltimore decorative painter Ernst Dreyer. The support outbuildings also survive, grouped neatly around the house, each one a miniature villa fitted with a cross-gabled or hipped roof and cupola.
Inside, through the kitchen, the living room is on one side and the dining room is on the other. Joe sat in the dining room as a young boy. Back then, there were bells under the table, and when he rang his bell, someone would bring him water or cookies or whatever he wanted. Around the corner is the master bedroom, where he and Janet sleep.
The rest of the mansion is more of a museum. Walk through the front door, and you’re standing in a foyer between separate men’s and women’s parlors, which retain, in addition to draperies, original chairs, cigars, paintings, busts, and shutters. J.J.W. Powell himself is there, or at least a painting of him, walrus mustache and sideburns and all. Beyond the parlors is a smaller foyer, with the original wood floors. Past lives are engraved in this floor, in the form of ruts in the wood from where Joe’s ancestors, as children, swung from a hammock that once hung here. It’s like touching the past, dragging a foot across those ruts.
A magnificent staircase spirals up four floors, where there are bedrooms and, at the top, stained-glass windows. In one of those bedrooms is a bed made from a walnut tree that fell right on the Coolmore property. Joe remembers sleeping there as a boy, and now, when his grandchildren visit, they sleep there sometimes, too.
Farther up the stairs, the roof closes in. In the corners are tiny ghosts of art — and at a glance, they don’t seem real. They are the pencil marks from a century and a half ago, those of Coolmore’s masterful painter, Dreyer himself.
The color on the outside is as striking as the intricacies on the inside: Dreyer originally had the house painted Monticello rose — which is, for all intents and purposes, pink. At one point, someone repainted it white, then later repainted again, back to the original color; it matches Dreyer’s pink shutters now, as in the beginning.
“It knocks your socks off,” says Roberson, who owns land in Edgecombe County and has long been a Coolmore fan. “When I was old enough to know what it was I was looking at, I thought, ‘Man, I can’t believe this place.’ And they live in it, and it’s their home. It’s not only an ancestral home, but it’s a place and a definition.”
And wouldn’t you know it, Maj. Gen. Joe Spiers, the unflappable and unbreakable man’s man who bombed Vietnam and trained pilots for the Air Force and survived the onslaught of a 200-pound tree branch, favors the rose.
“A little color makes all the difference,” Joe says. “Think about a beautiful woman. If you put just the right amount of makeup on her — do the eyeliner just right, but don’t overdo it — it makes everything just jump out. The house jumps out at you.”
Joe knows a little something about beautiful women. After all, he’s had Janet by his side since he was 17.
They met on a blind date. Joe and two of his buddies picked up three girls for a night on the town in Rocky Mount. Joe got Janet, and they fell in love that night, or so it seems when they talk about it now. He was 17, and she was 15. She found him funny and confident and smart, and also sensitive and caring and a good listener; he loved her laugh and thought she was gorgeous, with a beaming smile and brown legs that were beautiful against the Indian moccasins on her feet.
Three years later, after he finished his junior year of college, he picked her up from her last day as a freshman, and he proposed to her that night. They married a few months later.
Soon, Joe set out on his dream of becoming a test pilot for the Air Force. The dream took them around the country and sent him to Vietnam, leaving Janet behind to care for their three children — they would eventually have four — and lose 20 pounds from the stress of it all. But really, “It has not been hard,” Janet says. “I think we matured together.”
Joe and Janet were living in Oklahoma in the mid-1990s when Joe Powell — Joe Spiers’s uncle — died. In his will, Powell left half of the plantation to Preservation North Carolina.
Preservation N.C.’s policy ordinarily requires an endowment for historical properties, to accompany them for long-term stewardship. However, “Coolmore seemed too valuable, historically and architecturally, to sell on the open market with protective covenants,” says Howard, Preservation N.C.’s executive director. “So [we] accepted the property without endowment and [have] leased it long-term to a direct descendant of the original builder.”
So, if they want it, members of the Powell family can serve as “resident curators” of the half-home, half-museum. It becomes their home, provided they maintain everything and open it to the public once in awhile. It’s a unique marriage of heritage and history. If records exist of such arrangements elsewhere in North Carolina, they’re nowhere to be found.
Joe and Janet debated whether to move to Coolmore; their children were scattered out West, in Utah and California. But the call was too strong, and in 1995, they moved home.
It’s a job, living here. Renovations one week. Cleaning up after storms another. And tours, always tours. Janet gives them upon request throughout the year, and, once a year, holds a big event for the community, inviting everyone. It’s a good thing Janet loves Joe as much as she does: She has to work as hard as he does. “It’s hard work,” Janet says. “I love doing this, but you have to be careful. I can’t have just anyone helping me. Those draperies in the parlors are from 1860. If you suck them up with a vacuum cleaner, they’re gone.”
There are buttons here and there throughout the mansion, used in the old days to ring bells, beckoning servants. Janet likes to push them and imagine that someone will come do her work, come cook their meals. “Sometimes, I just hope people will come,” she says, laughing. “But they never do.”
On an afternoon last winter, Joe walks around the land, a relaxing end to another good day’s work at home. He checks on the tree that dropped the branch that fell on him months before, and he checks the fence he repaired from the branch’s damage. All’s in order; the sheep are all safe in the pasture.
It’s cold; Joe lifts his jacket collar against the wind. Chill aside, he moves well on his once-broken legs, still without so much as a limp, like Superman.
He passes the tree and the fence and makes his way to the back door. A cat sits on the hood of his truck. She showed up sometime in the summer and had a litter of kittens, at least a half-dozen, maybe more. Joe has no idea where she came from or why she stayed — he and Janet are dog people.
As it seems, that’s just Coolmore for you. It pulls you in — whether you’re a mother cat seeking shelter, a visitor who loves history, or a boy who was born there called back across the country in the twilight of his life.
The cat jumps off the truck and prances toward the building straight ahead — the old slaves’ quarters, left vacant long ago, now home to a different kind of family. As the cat disappears, Joe opens the kitchen door and walks out of the cold winter’s wind, back into the warmth of the mansion he calls home.
To schedule a tour of Coolmore, call (252) 823-2500.
Brandon Sneed is the author of The Edge of a Legend: An Incredible Story of Faith and Basketball From the Life of Harlem Globetrotter Anthony “Ant” Atkinson (Port City Publishing).