A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_179763" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Left: Across the walkway from Lake Hospital (left) and the Sucky Davis House (right) is the Colony House (center), where plantation owner Josiah Collins III’s children

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_179763" align="aligncenter" width="1140"] Left: Across the walkway from Lake Hospital (left) and the Sucky Davis House (right) is the Colony House (center), where plantation owner Josiah Collins III’s children

A walkway leading to the houses at Somerset Place.

Stories of Somerset Place

Left: Across the walkway from Lake Hospital (left) and the Sucky Davis House (right) is the Colony House (center), where plantation owner Josiah Collins III’s children attended school. Today, it houses Somerset’s visitor center. Right: Dorothy Spruill Redford, pictured in 1988, played a critical role in changing the narratives of stories interpreted at Somerset Place as the site manager. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil; Courtesy of Somerset Place State Historic Site

The Past Beckons

Where did we come from? Dorothy Spruill Redford’s 13-year-old daughter, Deborah, was curious. Like so many American families in the winter of 1977, she and her mom were snuggled together in front of the TV, watching Roots, the landmark miniseries based on Alex Haley’s genealogical hunt for his African ancestors. Redford, unable to answer her daughter’s question and inspired by Haley’s work, soon embarked on her own decade-long journey into the past, one that would lead her from the dusty stacks of local libraries to the front porches of relatives in eastern North Carolina and, ultimately, to Somerset Place, the former plantation near the town of Creswell in Washington County. It was against the backdrop of this endlessly flat, deceptively bucolic landscape that Redford’s earliest family members in the United States toiled and sweat and bled, forced to dig a six-mile canal that would transform 100,000 acres of dense forest and swampland into fertile fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax. “I was here now, at Somerset,” Redford wrote in her 1988 book, Somerset Homecoming: Recovering a Lost Heritage. “I had the names. I had the place. I had to go on, to piece together their existence — as individuals; as a group … Tiny slivers of reality, mere shavings of the past, disjunctive fragments of time.”

The Big House and residence of Lewis and Judy at Somerset Place.

Eight members of the Collins family — plus a freed nursemaid and an enslaved housekeeper — lived in the 14-room Big House (left). By comparison, up to 15 family members occupied the one-room home of enslaved residents Lewis and Judy (right). photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

Shifting Narratives

When Redford first set foot on Somerset’s soil in 1983, she found the plantation’s official story lacking. It centered almost exclusively on the Collins Family Home, also known as the Big House, completed in 1839 for the family of third-generation owner Josiah Collins III. The only mention of the more than 800 enslaved people who worked the land, made families, and died here during the plantation’s 80-year existence was a tiny wooden sign at the edge of a bare field that read, “Site of Slave Quarters.” That changed in 1988, when Redford became site manager of Somerset Place. Today, current Site Manager Karen Hayes weaves in rich, full stories of many of the enslaved families, showing visitors reconstructed versions of the dwellings in which they survived.

Black and white photo of Augusta Anna Carter Cabarrus and James Lemit Cabarrus Sr. and their preserved home at Somerset Place.

Freed in 1865, formerly enslaved residents Augusta Anna Carter Cabarrus and James Lemit Cabarrus Sr. (right) married and eventually bought land of their own in Creswell. Prior to emancipation, they lived in cramped quarters (left), where efficient use of space was essential. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil; Courtesy of Somerset Place State Historic Site

Lives of the Enslaved

Most enslaved families at Somerset Place lived in 18-by-18-foot one-room cabins that were smaller than the children’s rooms in the Collinses’ 6,809-square-foot mansion. Inside one of those cabins, the plantation’s horsekeeper, Sam, and his wife, Tamar, raised six of their children. “They cooked, they bathed, they slept — all in this one little area,” Hayes says as she walks into a reconstructed cabin. She motions to the small bed pushed into a corner. “The adults slept on straw mattresses and wooden frames. The children slept on the floor on corn-shuck pallets, which would be removed in the morning and hung on the walls to free up the living space.” The enslaved families would rise early to tend to their chores. In Sam’s case, that meant feeding, watering, exercising, and grooming Somerset’s horses and mules; cleaning their stalls; and maintaining their saddles and other equipment — seven days a week, 365 days a year.

A Life of Luxury

More than half a century after his namesake grandfather cofounded The Lake Company, which brought the initial 80 kidnapped West Africans to Washington County to begin building a plantation, Josiah Collins III and his family became Somerset’s first owner-residents. Their three-story Greek Revival mansion included lavish dens filled with musical instruments and ample space for the parties that Collins’s wife, Mary, would throw. The house was positioned in such a way that the front balcony overlooked the carriage drive and canal, and the back offered views of the 16,600-acre Lake Phelps as well as the row of 23 cabins crowded with enslaved workers. By all accounts, Collins was extremely controlling of his enslaved population, some of whom tried to escape bondage via the woods or swamps.

The fields and canal along Park Road outside of modern-day Somerset were once part of the plantation. Canal leads to Cypress trees.

The fields and canal along Park Road outside of modern-day Somerset were once part of the plantation. Located at what appears to be the end of the canal (right) are cypress trees that border the Collins mansion’s private drive. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

Fields of Opportunity

In 1986, some 2,000 descendants of enslaved families drove past the sprawling fields and canal that were once part of the Somerset plantation, imagining their great-great-great-grandparents bent over in the oppressively hot eastern North Carolina sun. Their destination: a Somerset homecoming that Redford had organized to bring together blood relatives who’d never met each other. Almost 40 years later, descendants still make pilgrimages here — for reenactments, reunions, and even weddings. Wilhelmenia Wilson’s brother, Charles L. Wilson, married his wife, Leslie Bell, at Somerset in 2003. The Wilsons were so moved by their connection to the area that they returned in 2019. This time — in conjunction with an event hosted by the Slave Dwelling Project, which seeks to provide a deeper understanding of enslaved narratives across the South — the siblings spent a night on the grounds of Somerset. “There was a fireside chat that night, where we talked about the enslaved community,” Wilson remembers. “It was incredibly poignant.”

Bed inside Lake Hospital at Somerset Place and primitive medical instruments used to treat patients.

Enslaved residents suffering from dental emergencies, broken bones, or infectious diseases were treated at Lake Hospital (right). Inside were beds (left) and a variety of primitive medical instruments — including tooth pliers (center) and fracture boxes — used by 19th-century physicians. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

Healing Old Wounds

When Wilson stepped inside the Lake Hospital building, where her ancestors at Somerset came to heal from illnesses or wounds incurred during their long workdays, she was shocked to see some of the instruments used to treat 19th-century patients. For Wilson, Lake Hospital is also the building in which her own emotional wounds were treated: This is where she and several of her family members spent a night on the floor back in 2019. During the wee hours, Wilson and her sisters had to get up, put on their shoes, exit the building, and slog through grass, bugs, and the August heat just to get to a bathroom outside. “At one point, we all just looked at each other and started laughing,” she remembers. “But it was a nervous laughter that was fraught with the realization that we were doing this for only one night.” Her voice begins to break. “We suddenly had this deep, undergirding appreciation that this is what our ancestors Kofi and Sali had to do every day of their lives.”

The cooking facilities inside enslaved homes at Somerset Place

The cooking facilities in the enslaved homes paled next to those found in the kitchen where the Collins family’s meals were prepared. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

The Kitchen House

In the cookhouse, located adjacent to the Collins mansion in an area called the Owner’s Compound, enslaved chefs Grace Bennett and Lovie Cabarrus Harvey prepared the family’s meals on wooden tables and cooked on an open hearth over red-hot coals. The circa-1808 building — said to be the oldest structure still standing at Somerset — was intensely hot, as it also housed the laundry facility, where enslaved sisters Annette Baum and Rebecca Hortin washed, ironed, and mended the Collins family’s clothes. Today, school groups touring Somerset are invited to help staffers re-create early dishes made from cornmeal.

A board illustrates the legacy of enslaved resident Sucky Davis and the two-story building where she and her family members lived at Somerset Place.

In 1843, Sucky Davis and 18 of her family members lived in three rooms of a two-story building (left), along with five members of an unrelated family. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

A Family’s Tree

Some of the dwellings for enslaved families were larger than others, but that didn’t translate to more space — just more people packed inside. Take the Sucky Davis House, a two-story, 1,600-square-foot building that housed four extended families and a total of 26 people. “Think of it as an apartment complex with multiple apartments in one structure,” Hayes explains. On a wall in one of the rooms, Hayes traces Davis’s lineage. Davis was purchased and brought here from Edenton in 1786. Once here, she had eight children, 45 grandchildren, 74 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren. Hayes points to a pair of photographs — one of handsome Hardison Reeves and the other of his stern-faced sister, Rowena Reeves Bennett. “These two,” Hayes says with a proud smile, as if she were showing snapshots from her own family photo album, “are two of Sucky’s great-grandchildren.”

Gray outbuildings and the formal garden at Somerset Place

Mary Collins took great pride in her gardens, located between the Big House and a cluster of gray outbuildings. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

Gardens of Plenty

An avid horticulturist, Mary Collins designed the formal garden that separates the mansion from a cluster of gray outbuildings. Those buildings served various functions: In addition to the kitchen, there was a smokehouse, a salt house, a bathhouse, and two rations buildings, where bulk foods and meat were stored and fresh herbs were dried. At one point, there was also a greenhouse, where Mary cultivated rare plants from around the world.

Lake Phelps in Washington, NC.

Lake Phelps is the second-largest natural lake in the state — behind Lake Mattamuskeet in Hyde County — and one of the oldest in the Eastern United States. Archaeologists have located evidence of dugout canoes here dating back more than 4,000 years. photograph by Baxter Miller & Ryan Stancil

If Lake Phelps Could Talk

Visitors to Pettigrew State Park, the roughly 17,500-acre recreational area that surrounds Somerset Place and Lake Phelps, may look out over the water today and see peace and serenity. But voices from the past are never far away. In precolonial times, before Europeans arrived to claim this land, native Algonquian peoples used the lake and its surrounding forest for hunting and fishing. In 1786, The Lake Company arrived with its original 80 enslaved Africans to dig the canal that connected Lake Phelps to the nearby Scuppernong River, providing a channel to drain the swampland in between. Today, this once-inaccessible area of Washington and Tyrell counties is open to everyone — and of all of the state parks in North Carolina, its grounds just may be our most hallowed.

Somerset Place
2572 Lake Shore Road
Creswell, NC 27928
(252) 797-4560

This story was published on Feb 22, 2024