A furniture maker's home in a tiny NC town will become a state historic site
The newest state historic site will spotlight the role of free Black residents in North Carolina during slavery.
State government will soon run the house in the tiny town of Milton where Thomas Day built a famed furniture business.
In the sleepy Caswell County town on the Virginia border, volunteers have been keeping the story of Day alive for decades. The furniture maker opened his workshop in Milton in the former Union Tavern in 1827.
Volunteer tour guide Joe Graves explains Day's significance in North Carolina history.
"By 1850, he is the largest furniture maker in the state of North Carolina by a factor of four times," he said. "What I mean by that is that his capital investment in his furniture-making business was four times that of the number-two person, the number-two business. So he was huge."
Graves shows visitors several examples of Thomas Day’s furniture. Most of the pieces were provided by locals who found them in the historic homes that dot the town.
For years, Graves and the other volunteers have wanted to see the site grow and attract more visitors. But it’s hard to do as a small local nonprofit. Rather than posting set hours, a sign in the window gives passerby phone numbers to call to schedule a tour.
The state’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources is now taking over the property. It will be the first new building added to the state historic sites program in decades. The state agency sees an opportunity to spotlight an overlooked aspect of North Carolina history that goes far beyond furniture and cabinets.
"I'm excited about the fact, and I know the department is excited about the fact that we'll be able to kind of tell that story, not only through the lens of one man, Thomas Day, but the broader story of free people of color across the state of North Carolina during the antebellum period," said Darin Waters, a deputy secretary at the department.
About 30,000 free Black residents were in the state at the start of the Civil War. They’d either bought their freedom from slavery or their mother had done so. But they still lived their lives under racial restrictions. Thomas Day had to seek action from the state legislature to be able to marry a free Black woman from Virginia. State law at the time prevented her from moving into North Carolina.
That experience is one of many wrinkles in Day’s business success story, according to State Historic Sites director Michelle Lanier.
"He does have a complex narrative," she said, "in that he and his family did legally own enslaved people. And there's record of him being aligned with people who were abolitionists. And so there are some parts of his story that require us to lean in with nuance and intellectual rigor that we don't really see in many other narratives in North Carolina."
That story largely isn’t told in the state’s other historic sites and museums. It’s why local and state leaders worked for years to acquire the Thomas Day House.
Efforts began when N.C. Sen. Mike Woodard, D-Durham, represented Caswell County, and accelerated when redistricting put the rural county in the district of powerful Senate leader Phil Berger.
Now the state owns both the house and a historic bank across the street, which will likely become a visitor’s center. That building is already run by the Milton Renaissance Foundation as a local history museum.
Funding in the pending state budget will allow for renovations at both buildings and to hire staff, Lanier says. While the budget isn't final yet, both the House and Senate included more than $5 million over two years for the project.
"We will need to work to establish a really strong interpretive message that is well researched and... embracing these concepts of true inclusion and the power of place," she said. "So there's quite a road ahead of us."
In the meantime, the local volunteers will keep giving tours. Milton Mayor Patricia Williams says she’s hoping to see a boost in tourism. She wants to market her town as a destination for history buffs from the Triad, Triangle, and beyond who want to check out historic homes and a main street that looks much as it did in the 1800s.
"We're nicknamed a museum without walls," she said. "Because you come through and you can't believe that things still exist from that era, from during that time."
The town was founded in the late 1700s for its proximity to the Dan River, but its commerce suffered when railroad lines went elsewhere. Milton has recently attracted new restaurants and businesses. An abandoned gas station across the street from the Thomas Day House was recently transformed into a beer garden.
Williams thinks the historic site will put Milton on the map for more tourists – much the way Day’s furniture showroom drew out-of-town visitors nearly 200 years ago.
"I think it's going to be a huge benefit financially for the town of Milton, and I think it would be the survival card for the town of Milton to continue to exist and not dry up," she said.