Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina, is like you would expect a county seat 14 miles south of Danville, Virginia, to be on a Saturday morning on the brink of spring: sleepy, silent, seemingly abandoned.
I was there to satisfy my curiosity about one Thomas Day (1801-1861), a free black carpenter from nearby Milton, whose unique newel posts and related interior carpentry had been the delicious surprise in Catherine Bishir’s recent North Carolina Architecture (Chapel Hill, $59.95).
Yanceyville, I discovered as a looked around the central square for someone to direct me to Milton, is graced by one of the handsomest county courthouses in the whole country. A plaque established that it was built “around 1861.” I shot away with my trusty Olympus, trying to keep the newly blooming dogwoods from obscuring details like columns whose capitals were adorned with colored foliage—it turned out to be tobacco and corn!
Later at the symposium on Thomas Day, I learned that the vague date alluded to the long time it took for tiny Caswell County to finish this grand structure, and that the architect was a certain William Percival, who had designed many other splendid if unsung buildings during the same period. I was getting to like this Yanceyville place.
A man helping prepare the Wadlington store for Saturday business gave me directions to Milton. For it was there—an even tinier town (population: 235)—that Day produced his three decades’ worth of commissions for the local gentry. And it’s there that Day buffs, headed by Mrs. Marion Thomas, are trying to raise the $500,000 to restore the Union Tavern, where the genius carpenter supervised up to a dozen helpers—some white and some black slaves.
Just outside Milton, the McPhersons run a bed-and-breakfast called the Woodside Inn, teeming with Dayana. As I pulled into their drive, I was a little edgy about a huge, lumbering dog seemingly guarding the manse, a certified National Historic Place. I needn’t have worried: Beau (short for Beauregard) is one amiable old hound dog. He looked at me almost philosophically as I palavered him in a strange Yankee accent.
I tried to weasel in that Saturday night, but there was no room for me at the Woodside Inn because they were giving a “mystery dinner.” Still, with that Southern hospitality, Liz, the matron of this virtual Thomas Day shrine, took me on a Day by Day tour of the house, where I began with a genuflection before the highly vaunted newel post on their main staircase which, in Catherine Bishir’s book, had started me on my quest for more Day. Mrs. McPherson’s tutelage was like an ambient seminar.
On my way back to Yanceyville, I paused to scan the restoration in progress for the Union Tavern. They’ve got their work cut out for them there, but judging from the informed enthusiasm I found at the seminar in the Yanceyville Cultural Center, I have no doubt that Day’s day has finally if belatedly come to Caswell County.
A jolly gentleman by the name of Ben R. Williams—who’d retired to Yanceyville from his directorship of the State Museum of Art in Raleigh—amiably supervised things at the seminar. Duke history professor Peter Woods got the almost 100 seminarians into a properly reflective mood with a brilliant slide lecture on the tug of war within the hearts of pre-Civil War blacks between art traditions inherited from Africa and the Euro traditions among the elite they were bound to serve.
Then Williams triggered what I can only describe as a cultural revival meeting. He asked that we all contribute to the creation of a Thomas Day glossary. We never got beyond his first suggestion—the word “stucco.” You can’t imagine what a rich history that simple term contains when you start thinking about it in Caswell County.
During coffee break I fell into a schmooze with one Les Sadler, a retired Naval engineer, who purchased the damned-near derelict Yancey manse out on the road to Reidsville. He swooped me over there for a quick visit. Ah, bless my soul: I found another of the soon-to-be-legendary newel posts, as different from the Woodside newel as azalea is from dogwood. Was Sadler ever proud of the great acts of conservation and connoisseurship he and his lady are in the middle of.
In Court House Square, a tall, lanky middle-aged man approached me to ask where I was from. (He already knew about me from the man who first gave me directions to Milton!) “Philly,” I replied.
“Oh, really? I caught for the Philadelphia Athletics during the 1953 season.” Neal Wadlington and I had a tasty chat right there in the gutter in front of his sports equipment / general merchandise store.
There was one other Yanceyville who caught my eye but who proved mysteriously elusive all weekend—Maud Gatewood, whose prints were the treat of a faculty show at the Danville Museum of Art and History on Main Street.
Then I found she’d made note papers for the Thomas Day house and T-shirt designs and Christmas cards to raise money for the Union Tavern restoration. I bought a pack of the note cards for $5. (I consoled myself with these, since I couldn’t afford at the moment the $250 print I’d lusted after in her exhibition.)
I had four hours before I had to turn my car in and fly back to Philly, so I said what the heck, maybe I can track her down in Yanceyville. When I phoned form Reidsville, she promised to meet me in a half hour at “The Drug Store.” (That’s what’s nice about small towns—even the stores have generic names, there usually being only one of each!)
Quicker than you can say Caswell Messenger, there she was, ready to sit down and ramble about her career and ideas—both interesting, even impressive. (I vowed to start saving for that print in the Danville show that I couldn’t yet afford.) It seems she’d been all over the larger world—teaching in Raleigh, Greensboro, Charlotte, a longish Fulbright tenure in Vienna in particular and Europe in general.
But she’d come home to Yanceyville. I can see why. Even if there weren’t a Thomas Day to entice you there, Y is O.K.
I concluded my weekend visit to Yanceyville with a pitstop at the Caswell Messenger. Never have I seen such esprit in a 5,000-circulation weekly. The youngish editor is a born josher. We got on right off—as I asked him to scan his morgue for Maud Greenwood stuff.
His circulation manager laid a free copy of the paper on me (“I give away more of these than I sell,” she observed sweetly), and I piled back in my Prizm for the half-hour drive back up to the airport.
As I clambered onto the little jet prop puddle-jumper of a Jetstream for the short hop to a proper jet for Philly in Charlotte, I thought to myself: These Tarheels are marvelous to visiting strangers. I’d expected to be exhilarated by the Thomas Day stuff, and was. The friendly, open manner of the locals was unexpected, and deeply appreciated.
O, what heavenly Days that weekend turned out to be. I recommend you try it, beginning with a night full of Day at the Woodside Inn.
Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, December 16, 1992