Episode 9: A Colonial Christmas

When I was busily selling books at a Christmas bazaar benefitting a domestic violence shelter, I encountered my friend Amanda Finn, Director of the historic Carson House in McDowell County, who told me about a candlelight tour that very night. Even though it was a long drive after a “hard” day, I convinced my husband that a Mexican dinner and a Colonial Christmas were an appropriate combination. Neither of us was disappointed, even though my expectations were scattered.

The Biltmore House, Asheville
FB page First Snow of the Year, 12-08-2017

I confused my time periods. I was expecting decorations of Victorian elegance and overindulgence and awesome beauty, like what we could have found at The Biltmore in the next county. Instead we found a simple warmth and welcome, hospitality with history, very much to my delight.

What should I have expected? Harold Gill, Jr. wrote about Christmas in Colonial Virginia on website: http://www.history.org/almanack/life/christmas/index.cfm

“Christmas is come, hang on the pot; Let spits turn round, and ovens be hot; Beef, pork, and poultry, now provide; To feast thy neighbors at this tide; Then wash all down with good wine and beer; And so with mirth conclude the Year. (Virginia Almanac Royle 1765)”

In this same article Gill wrote: “Not all English settlers celebrated Christmas. The New England Puritans declared observation of Christmas illegal.” I think his point was that “Virginia settlers tried to recreate the ambiance they had known back home.” In 1762, Thomas Jefferson wrote “Christmas was a day of greatest mirth and jollity.” Love that word jollity.

So I should have had visions of turkey and wine, not sugarplums.

Our first host at the Carson House was Jim Haney, in period costume with tall black hat, and he immediately said that in the early 1800’s the pioneer Christmas celebration was low key: no tree, no nativity scene, and no greeting cards. But there was lots to eat and drink and festivities shared with slaves and guests. Colonel Carson gave his servants practical gifts like shoes, cloth, sugar, and coffee.

Photo of Elk in 2017 at Cherokee Reservation in western NC

On display was an exceptionally large jug Colonel John Hazzard Carson filled with peach brandy to share with his guests. No doubt, lots of them were political acquaintances since he served in different leadership positions from justice of the peace to delegate for the Constitutional Convention. President Andrew Jackson was a close friend whom the Colonel entertained with horse races and cockfights. Probably not at Christmas, but this season was an especially good time for hunting parties that extended the visitation two or three weeks. Guests were stocking the larder faster than depleting it.

Historic Carson House
FB Photo 12-3-2014

In addition to soft candlelight, the Carson house was decorated with fragrant pine boughs and cones, holly, nuts, wood shavings, and corn husks. A docent in the Carson House parlour, Anne McNutt, told us that the slaves were tasked with procuring the largest yule log they could find because their holiday would be as long as that fire burned. She also pointed out a beaded screen about 18″ long that hung on a stand next to an armchair. Women’s makeup was heavy and tended to melt in the heat of a fire, so if a lady wanted to warm her toes, she needed to keep her face from running. (And she needed to wear a heavy shawl if fashion demanded bare shoulders while the men stayed warm in shirts and jackets.)

Round Hill Gravesite on Marion Greenway

Carson’s first wife died about 1795, and he married the neighbor, Mary Moffit McDowell, widow of Joseph McDowell of Pleasant Gardens. Although Colonel John had named his house “Garden Hill,” when Mary moved the four miles down the road, she brought slaves, furniture, and the name “Pleasant Gardens” which is still the name of the neighborhood. (See my book The Bear Hunter’s Son). Mary needed a lot of servants since she immediately had five children in addition to the seven already there. Mary gave birth to Samuel Price (1798-1838), Matilda (1799-1824), William Moffitt (1801-1863), George M. (1804-1863), and Jonathan Logan (1807-1866).

In my last post, I mentioned Samuel Price Carson’s duel with Robert Vance. At the Carson house candlelight tour, we heard the famous story, reminding me that THE David Crockett was Samuel’s second for the duel, and his picture hangs in the hallway. Subsequently, Samuel followed Davey to Texas, both of them probably exasperated with Washington politics. On the parlour wall were paintings of Samuel and his wife, Sarah Catherine Wilson. Married in 1831, the couple had one daughter, Rebecca Rachel, and adopted Sam’s illegitimate daughter Emily, according to Wikitree.com, edited 11-29-2017. Samuel’s descendant, Marion native Moffitt Sinclair Henderson, wrote a book in 1972 about the duel, A Long, Long Day in November, and worked with the Greenlee sisters in researching the history on the Carson House.

When Samuel died in Arkansas in 1838, Sarah returned to Pleasant Gardens and the Carson House. She married Sam’s younger brother, William, who lived nearby in a red brick home that still stands on now Lake Tahoma Road.

Historic Carson House
FB Page Photo:
Governor Stokes’ (Governor of North Carolina from 1830-1831) Turkey Platter on display

Jonathon Carson, the youngest son of Colonel John, inherited the family home and framed in the back porch downstairs with imported wood paneling used on the interior walls in a board and batten style, if I heard correctly. Our docent for the master bedroom, Martha Jordan, opened a cupboard-size door cut into the wall for tour purposes to show us the original logs. Jonathon did not favor the log cabin look. In the dining room, the horizontal log walls are painted to resemble a marble design popular in his time. Not my favorite facade, by the way. Nor did Carson add closets because the homeowner was taxed on the number of framed doorways in the structure. Martha is a Conley descendant whose family donated a handsome breakfront that survived the 1916 flood when the Conley house slid down a mountain of mud.

When I was researching for The Bear Hunter’s Son, I interviewed William Brown (Pete) Gibbs’ cousin Dr. Henry Seawall Brown of North Cove. Of the same generation, they are related to the Brown family who lived in the Carson House in the early 1900’s. The North Cove family took over the Carson Mill, and the name changed to the Brown’s Mill, but the Carson House retained the name from Colonel John. Dr. Brown showed me postcards of that time that were curiously postmarked “Garden City” from an aunt in that area.

Dr. Brown told me of his family’s tradition of everyone gathering at Grandma Brown’s house in North Cove for a week at Christmas. That family lived near each other and were so close that Dr. Brown said he only went to Marion about six times before he left home for college. Everything they needed was right there in the family village. Church, school, and general store. “When my dad was growing up, he and Uncle Dewey and maybe my Granddad, hitched a team to a wagon and they’d go to town. They’d leave early in the morning, go down the old Linville Highway, (that went around the base of the mountain, not straight down the valley like 221 does now) get into Marion, park behind the courthouse, do their shopping or trading. Then they would come back. By the time they got half way, it was night, so they camped out and come on home the next day. Going to town was a two-day trip.”

“A lot of us lived here on the farm, and we’d get together every Sunday afternoon, for Sunday lunch. My first cousin, Uncle Dewey’s oldest, would sometimes spend Saturday night down here then we’d walk a mile to church. By the time we walked back here, the dinner would be out and my uncles and aunts and cousins would be here and we’d sit around and talk. That was our social life, the family.”

He told me how they celebrated Christmas when he was a youngster, and I imagine it was somewhere between the Victorian decorations and Colonial mirth and jollity. They would start on Christmas Eve. “By then we had all the corn shucked and put in the corncrib. In the afternoon we went to get the Christmas tree, come back to decorate it. Go home to milk the cows, feed the chickens, and stuff, and come back down here, have supper and wait on ole Santa Claus. We stayed down here (Grandma’s house where he now lives) except for going home to take care of the livestock, until New Years Day. We went home that afternoon, a full week. That was what we had.” Indeed, they had a lot.

Dr. Brown showed me photos of his extended family making molasses with the mule turning the press. (Uncle Dewey lived a half mile up the road.) “Molasses-making time was a celebration. People would come around with fruit jars, wanting to get some molasses. Hog killing was a dirty job, but a celebration. Thrashing wheat, people would come in from all over, and they would go to their neighbors and help out. There were a lot of events we did at the farm that turned out to be a celebration, like shucking corn. People would come in at night, and we’d go into the barns, go up in the loft and shuck corn. The air would be full of ears of corn and shucks behind; you had to keep the shucks pushed back. And Christmas Eve, we had to crib all that corn; we’d just shove it in the barn.”

I mentioned that it was ironic that the Brown name stayed with the mill, not the Carson name, and I asked if some of the employees took on the Carson name as the slaves did long ago. Dr. Carson had a photo of a boy named Horace who worked as a field hand. “At that time, they gave all the field hands ten cents an hour and their dinner. In fact when I was growing up, they were still paying that in the 1930s. Money was hard to get in those days.” And the house didn’t have electricity or running water until after Dr. Brown bought it from his Aunt Bea in 1965.

“At ten cents a day, you got a dollar every day working for my grandfather. And he had several workers. When this guy was working down here on Granddad’s farm, he was Horace Brown. When he went up to work on grandmother English’s farm, he was Horace English. He took on both names. He slept upstairs here in this house in a bed at the upper end of the hallway toward the little portico up there. It was just a little 3/4 size bed but around Christmas time, all of the kids would fight over who got to sleep in the Horace bed.”

“In fact Uncle Dewey and his boy, Bill, during Christmas time would sleep in the Horace bed. And one Christmas, my Uncle Gene, the youngest boy in Granddad’s family was sleeping in a bed right up there. Home from WWII, Bill had gone a half a mile up the road to call on a girlfriend that evening after supper, so we started to go to bed, and Uncle Gene said, “Let’s fix him a trap.” So he got a string and tied it across the stairway. Then the other end of it was to an old dishpan hanging up on a shelf. I heard the door open, and creak, creak, creak coming in. It was dark and everyone asleep. All of a sudden, Bam, Bam, Bam. Uncle Gene raised up in bed and hollered. “Bill, is that you?” Cousin Bill continued up the stairs without pretense. Everyone was awake. Stomp, stomp, stomp. “We had a lot of fun.”

These are the Christmas memories that we share and the reason to get together with family, no matter the year, no matter the inconvenience. The closest ties of the heart are made at home, where you are all that you can be.


Copyright@2017 Georgia Wilson




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