Frederick Jones Hill: Architect of Grace

by Susan Taylor Block

(The following is an excerpt from an upcoming book, The Moores of Cape Fear. Comments, additions, and images are welcome. – STB.)

Owner Frederick Hill changed the face of Orton. (Courtesy of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History)

Cape Fear’s Moore family tree is a forest, and Frederick Jones Hill’s name sits in the midst of it. Moores and Hills were cousins many times over. Wherever he turned, Frederick found family. It was a network that helped optimize his life. He was a physician, planter, lumber merchant, legislator, university trustee, and architecture aficionado. Distinguished ancestry assured Dr. Hill’s place in local society, but he earned his reputation statewide as a man of good works. By the time of his death, on March 27, 1861, he was known in Cape Fear as the  “Father of Public Schools,” just one of many causes he championed.

Dr. Hill had a good eye for architectural style and beauty. His contributions ranged from steering to controlling and fully funding the creation or alteration of several distinctive buildings in North Carolina locations such as Wilmington, Pittsboro, and Brunswick County – most notably Orton Plantation. In addition, he was involved in less direct ways with two of the Piedmont’s most famous structures.Frederick Hill was a great-great grandson of Gov. James Moore (1650-1706) of South Carolina, and a great-grandson of Roger Moore’s brother, Nathaniel. He was genealogically connected, in one way or several, to all branches of “The Family,” a group of powerful and affluent men who were related by blood or marriage. The Family dominated Lower Cape Fear politics and social calendars from 1725 until 1739, when Governor Gabriel Johnston’s preference for Newton (Wilmington) over Brunswick Town mollified their influence. Countless descendants of the Moore and Hill families have peopled the Carolinas ever since.

William Hill, the Grandfather

Frederick, named for the Hon. Frederick Jones, a Chief Justice of North Carolina, was the son of John Hill and Elizabeth Swann Jones. His paternal grandfather, William Hill (1737-1783) was a Boston native born to John and Elizabeth Maxwell Hill. William first visited Cape Fear to attend the wedding of (Judge) Maurice Moore, King Roger’s nephew. William and Maurice were classmates and close friends at Harvard, and both graduated in the Class of 1756. At Brunswick, William met and fell in love with Margaret, daughter of Nathaniel Moore. They married at Orton Plantation in 1757, and lived in Brunswick Town, and at York, Margaret’s father’s plantation just south of Orton.[1]

 

William Hill, a young man of graceful manners and expression, boarded in the home of President Edward Holyoke during his freshman year at Harvard. His host left an impression on William. President Holyoke was a classical scholar and Congregational church minister who began his career as a tutor. William began his own working life in the same manner when he became schoolmaster in Brunswick Town. He probably conducted classes in various homes and at plantations nearby, just as it is known he conducted religious services as a layperson throughout the area. Soon, William quit teaching school to partner in business with neighbor Parker Quince, son of Richard Quince who owned Orton Plantation. In 1764, another neighbor, Governor Arthur Dobbs, gave Hill crown distinction when he appointed him Collector of Duties for the Brunswick port. In 1775, the Hills moved to Wilmington where he monitored Cape Fear River traffic to the city and to the port of Brunswick.[2]

John Hill, the Father

William and Margaret’s son, John, was born in Brunswick in 1761, and died in 1813. Along with his three illustrious brothers, John lived a rich life, and wore more than one hat. He was a physician, planter, and scholar who built a New England-style town home at 11 South Third Street in Wilmington. Though the structure, known eventually as the Hill-Wright-Wootten House, was razed, it is still known fondly today through vintage photographs. Sadly, there is no known image of Dr. Hill’s plantation, Fairfields, north of Smith’s Creek.

The Hill-Wright-Wootten House (now razed), 11 South Third Street. (Photo by John Spillman, archived by Louis T. Moore)

Fairfields Plantation, known originally as Nesses Creek, was owned  by the interrelated Wright family for years before it was sold to Dr. John Hill, who renamed it Fairfields, and built a new house there. Dr. Hill’s wife died at Fairfield and her grave marker has survived. Today, the land is divided between a General Electric plant and property owned by the Hon. and Mrs. James Fox of Wilmington.[3]

Frederick Jones Hill (1792-1861)

Frederick Hill was born March 15, 1792, at Fairfields. His world in Wilmington and Brunswick County was about as picturesque as possible in southeastern North Carolina. There were water views and gardens at Fairfields, and from the top floor of his father’s town home, he could down upon the heart of Wilmington. He had glimpses of the Cape Fear River, and could see the Burgwin-Wright House and the grand Armand John deRosset house that once sat on the opposite corner of Market Street. It would all have been eye candy for a young man with his sensitivity.

Young Frederick’s early schooling came probably through the Rev. Mr. William Bingham, who ran a classical school in Wilmington. It was located conveniently for a time at St. James Church, next door to the boy’s residence. At age 13, he began taking courses at the University of North Carolina, then transferred a few years later to the College of Physicians and Surgeons, now Columbia University Medical Center, in New York City. There, he studied obstetrics, physiology, anatomy, herbal and practical medicine, and wrote his thesis on gout. After graduating in 1812, at age 20, he worked at his studied profession only briefly, sharing a practice with Drs. Nathaniel Hill and James Henderson. Despite abandoning medicine, he was recognized throughout the rest of his life for his medical knowledge, and was made the first honorary member of the North Carolina Medical Society.[4]

On April 2, 1812, Frederick Hill married Ann Ivy Watters at Forceput Plantation in New Hanover County. The bride and groom were 3rd cousins, once removed. Ann was a great-great-granddaughter of Maurice Moore, King Roger’s brother, and Frederick was a great grandson of Maurice’s brother, Nathaniel. Frederick would purchase Orton Plantation, once owned by Maurice and lying just next to Nathaniel’s plantation, York, just 14 years after he married Ann.

 

(Courtesy of Columbia University Medical Center – Alumni Records.)

When Dr. Hill first returned to Wilmington, doubtless, he lived at 11 South Third Street. The large house seemed to be always filled with blood kin, in-laws, and assorted cousins. Often, they migrated together to various Hill family plantations. At one time or another, the first three generations of the William Hill line owned the following: Forceput, Hailbron, York, Kendal, Hilton, Oakmont, Fairfields, Belmont, and Rocky Road plantations in southeastern North Carolina. In addition, they owned at least four plantations in Pittsboro, North Carolina.[5]

It was an elegant life and the “Boston Hills” were known in Cape Fear as elegant people. Frederick, through heredity and environment, was no exception. His taste ran to fine, dressy carriages and objects of gold. He spent considerable time traveling and accumulated friends who mirrored not only his taste, but his appetite for good causes. A reporter for the Raleigh Register summed up his charm, eloquence, and powers of persuasion, after hearing Dr. Hill deliver a political address in support of Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay, in 1844 : “For practical sense, sound judgment, and happy illustrations, I have not heard Dr. Hill’s speech surpassed this season.” [6]

 

Dr. Hill was elected first to the North Carolina Senate in 1835, then re-elected three times. He bonded with several colleagues who were eager to establish and improve public education, and Frederick was one of the most ardent among them. His efforts would earn him the name, “Father of Public Schools in Wilmington,” but his influence was felt throughout the state. Ironically, Dr. Hill, a man who gained such distinction as nurturer to the young, had no children of his own.

In 1839, the North Carolina Legislature passed a school law of Frederick’s authorship. Subsequently, each county held an election to determine if residents were in favor of public education. The counties that approved it paid a tax of $20, then received $40 from the state. There only were 68 counties in the state at that time, and 61 of them approved Frederick’s plan, which also provided that Superintendent of School positions would be established statewide. In 1840, the state’s first public schools began to emerge. Ironically, back home in Wilmington, things proceeded slowly – at least until General Alexander MacRae was appointed Chairman of the Board of  Superintendents. Gen. MacRae, known and respected throughout the county as General of the local militia, moved matters along with military precision.[7]

 

Alexander MacRae (Courtesy of St. John’s Lodge, No. 1, and New Hanover County Public Library)

School and church interests engaged Dr. Hill in decades of long meetings and outward service. Politics led to be a delegate to the Harrisburg Convention of 1827, at which William Henry Harrison was nominated to run for the presidency. He was a trustee of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1835 until 1860; a trustee of the Episcopal School of North Carolina, in Raleigh; and a laity delegate to conventions of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. His work placed him amidst stimulating company and marvelous networks, for the membership rosters of these groups were laced with likeminded state leaders in the fields of scholarship, religion, business, and the arts.[8]

Banks and budding railroad systems were commercial priorities in those days. Frederick’s bank involvement came primarily through his brother, Dr. John “Bank” Hill, president of the Bank of Cape Fear. Frederick was directly associated with the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, forerunner to the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. In 1835, he became a founding contributor to the Wilmington and Weldon, then served as a director from 1841 until 1859.[9]

 

(Courtesy of the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina)

In matters of personal business, Frederick Jones Hill’s chief occupation and most dominant profile was as owner of Orton Plantation, a 4975-acre tract on the Brunswick banks of the Cape Fear River. He purchased Orton in 1826, 101 years after his  great-great uncle, Maurice Moore, established the plantation. The existing residence there was built in 1735 by another of Frederick’s great-great uncles, “King” Roger Moore. Though Dr. Hill spent much time away from the plantation and always had a dwelling place in Wilmington, he considered Orton “home,” and was proud of his position as a representative of Brunswick County.

William Campbell Lord, Frederick’s brother-in-law, managed the plantation and the Orton mill, or mills, rebuilt from those created by Roger Moore, about 1735. Mr. Lord, noted as “agent for Orton Mills,” advertised, in 1839, lumber that was, “quality warranted fully equal to the best steam mill,…no charge for wharfage.” In 1827, soon after purchasing Orton, Dr. Hill felt the first effects of Cape Fear’s quirky weather when Spring storm winds tore the roof off Orton’s “machine and winnowing house, and utterly demolished the barn.” A stronger storm hit Orton in June 1835. It produced thunder, lightning, hailstorms over six inches in circumference, and a whirlwind that lifted the roof of Orton house and carried it a “considerable distance, and very much shattering the body.” Winds also ripping the canvas roof off St. Philip’s Church in Brunswick Town. Perhaps, after the storm of 1835, Dr. Hill began to yearn for a house with more fortitude.[10]

A multitude of trees and easy water access made milling a natural sideline to rice production. In Roger Moore’s day, Orton Mill customers were located chiefly in South Carolina and Barbados, but during Dr. Hill’s ownership, most lumber shipped from Cape Fear was headed to the West Indies. Some of that heart pine stayed close to its birthplace, though – traveling twenty minutes by water, straight to the Wilmington docks.

(Cape Fear Recorder, February 17, 1830. (Microfilm Collection, New Hanover County Public Library)

During the 28 years of Frederick’s ownership, from 1826 until 1854, much fine Orton lumber would have found its way into Wilmington’s historic architecture. Advertisements in local newspapers document the fact that Dr. Hill sought the city’s business, and family and social connections virtually assured sales to certain building projects, such as St. James Episcopal Church and the Armand deRosset House. Orton manager William Lord was Junior Warden and co-chairman of the building committee that commissioned the beautiful church erected at Third and Market streets, in 1839; and Orton owner Frederick Hill was related to Dr. Armand deRosset, who built the deRosset House (City Club) at 23 South Second Street, in 1841. The list goes on and on, but it is possible that any of Wilmington’s historic plaques bearing dates within the 1826 to 1854 range are nailed to buildings made from Orton’s stately pines.[11]

Frederick Jones Hill and the Changes to Orton House

According to author James Laurence Sprunt, it was about 1840 when Dr. Hill altered the Orton residence. He added a full story and an attic, then gave it strength and majestic beauty with the addition of four fluted Doric columns.[12] The result was a Greek Revival facade that has now become one of the most photographed and reproduced sights in the American South.

But what would cause Frederick to make such a change? It is a rare mind that identifies deficiencies and conceptualizes solutions that far surpass the norm. Temple style architecture already had cropped up in commercial buildings, but was used in few residences in North Carolina. Perhaps the building of the State Capitol in Raleigh inspired Dr. Hill. William Nichols, Jr., of the New York architectural firm of Ithiel Town and A. J. Davis, drew the original plans for the capitol that called for columns of the “powerful Doric order of the Parthenon.”[13] Construction began in 1833, and was not completed until 1840. Even before Dr. Hill was elected to the Senate in 1835, he spent time in Raleigh, lobbying for free education. After being elected senator, his time there only increased.

Dr. Hill’s close friend William Gaston was a New Bern attorney and  a powerful political force in advocating adoption  of the architectural design that materialized. The building process then became a consuming passion for him, and during that period, he and Dr. Hill were bonded by like interest. In 1835, both were North Carolina representatives to the Constitutional Convention of 1835, and the two of them worked together as longtime outspoken advocates for internal improvements statewide. How exciting it must have been for such artistically sensitive men to watch the great stone structure rise from the ground.

Architectural historian Catherine Bishir calls the State Capitol, “one of the most beautiful and original neoclassical buildings in America. “[14] By the time it was finished, five different architects were involved and the many changes demanded much budget attention from the North Carolina Senate. Dr. Hill was present for five years’ worth of lengthy discussions.

The State Capitol. (Etching by Louis Orr)

The North Carolina Capitol building was finished in 1840, the same year Dr. Hill was said to begin the changes to Orton. Maybe someone who worked on the Capitol also made the changes to Orton. The architects included Ithiel Town, Alexander Jackson Davis, and David Paton. The original supervisor, William Drummond, who left during the project early, then worked for Dr. Hill’s friend, Duncan Cameron, before supervising building construction for the Episcopal School in Raleigh, in 1835. The school project would have been  dear to Dr. Hill, because it was a place of education; it bore the name of his denomination of choice; and because of his trusteeship. In addition, his beloved neighbor, old friend, and former rector, the Rev. Dr. Adam Empie, was on his way to Raleigh to supervise the school. Capitol contractor William Drummond’s whereabouts in 1840 are unknown.[15]

Another candidate is Thomas Bragg, Sr., known to do design and build, or alter, homes for several plantation owners in Virginia, and numerous folks in North Carolina – including some of Dr. Hill’s acquaintances.  [16]

Dr. Hill’s association with the firm of Ithiel Town and A. J. Davis during the State Capitol building process continued  with the construction of Smith Hall (Playmakers’ Theater), on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill. As a school trustee, Frederick would have followed architect A. J. Davis’s reports with interest. As a lover of architectural beauty, he must have exulted in the finished product.

Smith Hall (Playmakers Theater). (Photo by Hugh Morton. North Carolina Collection, UNC)

 

Other Buildings, Other Questions

Dr. Hill’s own penchant to build evidenced itself as early as 1831, when he, with brother Nathaniel, gave a quarter of an acre of land, then built a church upon it, in Pittsboro, NC. The brothers hired builders Martin and Wesley Hanks to construct a house of worship that would be church home to them and their two other brothers, Thomas G. and William Henry Hill, while they were in residence in Pittsboro. Like their father and three uncles, each had their own individual Chatham County plantation where they spent a few months of every year. Oddly enough, Frederick’s Pittsboro Plantation was known as “Kentucky.”

The frame church, named St. Bartholomew’s, went over budget and took two years to build. The cost, carried mostly by Dr. Hill, was $1,158.23. What is most interesting is the style: It is one of North Carolina’s earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture. There are similarities between St. Bartholomew’s and the St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church building in Hillsborough ‑ not surprising since the Hanks worked on both projects. Also, Dr. Hill, known as the chief force behind the Pittsboro project, had friends who were parishioners of St. Matthew’s.

St. Bartholomew’s Church is considered a “very faithful advocate of Gothic Revival” style. Stained glass, customized for the space, was made in Boston, then shipped by schooner to Wilmington, and hauled to Pittsboro by wagon.[17] It is possible the same company made some of the original stained glass windows for Dr. Hill’s Wilmington church, St. James Episcopal, built only six years after St. Bartholomew’s.

St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Pittsboro.

Connections and the power of bountiful funds are an inescapable part of this story of questions. As mentioned previously, Dr. Hill’s business associate and brother-in-law, William Campbell Lord, was co-chairman of the building committee in Wilmington, and helped lead the years’ long campaign to raze the first building and create a new one. The other co-chairman, Dr. Thomas Henry Wright, was Dr. Hill’s close neighbor, business associate, and a fellow graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

Martin Hanks and contractor Isaac J. Collier built Pittsboro’s Columbus Lodge No. 102, in 1838-1839. Collier went on to build Chapel of the Cross in Chapel Hill in 1833. Chapel of the Cross was designed by Thomas U. Walter, the same architect responsible for St. James Church in Wilmington, and the U. S. Capitol dome. Could Isaac Collier and Martin Hanks have made the Orton changes?

A Fayetteville stonecutter, George Lauder, carved the baptismal font for St. Bartholomew Church. Did he also work in Wilmington and Brunswick County. Was he responsible for the baptismal font at St. James Church or the grave marker for Dr. John Hill, brother of Frederick Jones Hill, who died May 9, 1847, and is buried at Orton?

Another building project also began in Pittsboro in 1831: Construction of the Henry Adolphus London residence. London, a younger son of John London of Wilmington, was related to Dr. Hill, and was associated with him in Wilmington and in Pittsboro, where London was a successful merchant. The Greek Revival facade of London’s new house and Dr. Hill’s Orton bear a striking resemblance.

The Henry Adolphus London House (now razed) in Pittsboro. (Reprinted from “The Architectural History of Chatham County, NC,” by Rachel Osborn and Ruth Selden-Sturgill.)

Lastly, Frederick altered another house in 1854, the year he sold Orton to Thomas Miller. Frederick paid $14,000 for a residence on Chestnut Street, between Third and Fourth streets. It was built by the late Aaron Lazarus, about 1816, when it was the only house on the block. Since the lot went straight through, Frederick found it convenient to change the entrance from the south-fronting side of Chestnut to the north-facing side of Grace street. He also altered the exterior, creating an Italianate facade. According to architectural historian Tony Wrenn, a center pavilion, three bays wide and one bay deep, apparently served as the new entrance.[18] Today the house is owned by preservationists, Connie and Landon Anderson.

314 Grace Street, Wilmington. (Photo by the author)

Dr. Hill added a cast iron double piazza to the house’s southern facade. (Courtesy of Peggy Perdew)

Frederick Jones Hill died March 26, 1861, and was buried at Oakdale Cemetery the following day. His death was attributed only to “sickness,” but may have been due to yellow fever. He was survived by his wife, Ann, virtually invisible to local history; many nieces and nephews, an adopted son named William E. Boudinot, and numerous close cousins. Dr. Hill bequeathed money to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church; money to St. James; and funds to support “orphans of North Carolina.”[19]

Grace is immeasurable. Though much of Frederick Hill’s work is lost in corporate and organizational anonymity, that he had a huge part in elevating quality of living through education is undeniable. His intangible gifts to orphans and many other service and charitable contributions are uncountable. But material, divergent things do stand nobly to his memory, most importantly the exquisite beauty of his design changes to Orton Plantation; and the distinctive St. Bartholomew Episcopal Church building.  Dr. HIll’s other good deeds may always remain as much a mystery as his very appearance is today.

Orton Plantation (Photo by MIllie Maready, Orton Collection)


[1] Hill Collection and Moore collections, Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear – Family Files. Ida Brooks Kellam, compiler.

[2] Ann Moore Bacon, “William and Margaret Moore Hill of Colonial Brunswick Town.” (HSLCF Bulletin, Volume XXIV, Number 3.) R. Stanton Harvard University Archives. Avery Special Collections Department, New England Historic Genealogical Society. Hill Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

[3] Block, The Wrights of Wilmington, 1992. Claude V. Jackson, Richard W. Lawrence, and Glenn C. Overton, “A Maritime History and Survey of the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers, Wilmington Harbor, North Carolina.” (Underwater Archaeology Unit, North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources.)

[4] University of North Carolina Alumni Records. Columbia University Medical Center Alumni Records. Diane Cobb Cashman, The Lonely Road: A History of Physicks and Physicians in the Lower Cape Fear (1735-1976); Medical Society of New Hanover, Brunswick, and Pender Counties, 1978.

[5] Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear (HSLCF), Family Files, Plantation Files, and the records of Ida Brooks Kellam..

[6] Interview with Isabel James Lehto, 2000. Historic Wilmington Foundation plaque files, Lazarus House (Connie and Landon Anderson), HSLCF. Raleigh Register, October 9, 1844.

[7] James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River (1660-1916) Raleigh, 1916. Archibald Henderson, The Old North State and the New, Vol. II. 1941. “New Hanover County Schools,” N. C. Archives. Jon H. Gerdes, “Education and Schools in Ante Bellum Wilmington.” (Special Collections, New Hanover County Public Library)

[8] Sketches of the History of the University of North Carolina (1789-1889), UNC, 1889. Records of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina.

[9] Wilmington and Weldon information contributed by author James Burke.

[10] Bradford J. Wood, This Remote Part of the World. University of South Carolina Press, 2004. Will of King Roger Moore. Charleston Courier, June 29, 1835.

[11] Susan Taylor Block, Temple of our Fathers. Wilmington, 2004.

[12] James Laurence Sprunt, The Story of Orton Plantation. Wilmington, 1958.

[13] Catherine W. Bishir, North Carolina Architecture. University of North Carolina, 1990.

[14] Bishir, North Carolina Architecture.

[15] J. Marshall Bullock” William S. Drummond.” Architects & Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, 2009.

[16] Bishir, North Carolina Architecture. Catherine W. Bishir, “Thomas Bragg, Sr. & Builders: A Biographical Dictionary, 2009.

[17] Rachel Osborn and Ruth Selden-Sturgill. The Architectural Heritage of Chatham County, North Carolina. Charlotte, 1991.

[18] Tony P. Wrenn, An Architectural and Historical Portrait of Wilmington, NC. Charlottesville, 1984.

[19] Marshall DeLancey Haywood, Lives of the Bishops of North Carolina. Moore-Hill family records.

Acknowledgments: The late Ann Moore Bacon, Peggy Moore Perdew, Dr. Walter E. Campbell, J. Kenneth Davis, Jr., the late Eugene C. Hicks, Candace McGreevy, Colleen Griffiths, Beverly Tetterton, Joseph Sheppard, and Michael Whaley.

COPYRIGHT 2012, Susan Taylor Block and the Orton Collection. All rights reserved.

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A Picture Worth a Thousand-Plus Words

by Susan Taylor Block

 

Harriss Northrop and Albert Hurst, about 1923. (Click to magnify. Photo courtesy of John Murchison.)

The picture above ensnared me from the moment I saw it. Working on photo anthologies taught me there are few good interior shots of Wrightsville Beach from the early 1920s, but there I was, holding a magnificent 8″ by 10″ specimen in my hands. There was much more, too: the highly intriguing gallery of shell art; the rarity of a white and black man posing thoughtfully, together, during that era; and the quaint nature of the room itself – a space so wholly foreign to today’s beach.

The photo’s backside was labeled “Harriss Northrop Beach Cottage.” I recognized William Harriss Northrop from other photos I was studying, so with the location identified, I had one answer, but a dune of questions. The resulting hunt turned into an article that’s featured in the current issue of Wrightsville Beach Magazine entitled “Harriss Northrop and the Northrop Cottage.” ( Go to wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com – then click on “Virtual Magazine,” and proceed to page 31.  )

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Flowers with Fruit

Quirky weather agrees with my camellias, "Kramer's Surprise" (red) and "Sea Foam." Click to magnify. (Photo by Susan Taylor Block. Camellias varieties identified by Matt Hunter.)

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Ode to the Tool Bar

by Susan Taylor Block

 

Thou stripe of empowerment, at my touch,

Making the writing much more of a game,

Fonts and alignments, a bit of design —

Printing companies used to do the same.

I can make things vanish, then reappear,

Publish them bold as Prurock walking the beach,

Or slant an entire book with just two clicks.

This italicizing I find most dear:

When a mind is angled to its best reach,

It can spot humor lurking out in the sticks.

 

Published in Wrightsville Beach Magazine, February 2012.  http://www.wrightsvillebeachmagazine.com/ 

 

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Always Fresh: Boswell’s “Life of Johnson”

by Susan Taylor Block

 

Dr. Samuel Johnson (Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery)

I was mesmerized when I first read James Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson in 1971. Biographer Boswell followed the words and movements of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) like a hungry dog watches his master prepare to feed him. Johnson, who was created from a different sort of recipe, gave Boswell plenty to write about. Today, the book still fascinates me, but in different ways. After making  my own modest attempts with biographies of local interest, I know how difficult it is.

In 1971, I took notes on all the Johnson quotes that most interested me, and it was fun to read through the list again just a few days ago.  Here’s a small sampling:

“Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.

“Prejudice, not being founded on reason cannot be removed by argument.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.

“Poetry is the art of uniting pleasure and truth.

“Read over your compositions and, when you meet a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out.”

I added a few more Johnson quotes that are recent favorites:

“A man should keep his friendships in constant repair.

“it is better to suffer wrong that to do it, and happier to be sometimes cheated than not to trust.

“A cucumber should be well-sliced, dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out.

“…for being in a ship is being in a jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

In 1974, I went on the first of my only two trips to England. Like hordes of tourists, Boswell’s work and Johnson’s being made me want to see a place in which the latter lived. I enjoyed touring Dr. Johnson’s house at 17 Gough Square and the Cheshire Cheese pub nearby, where he was thought to have spent many happy hours. “There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern,” said he.

“The guide at Dr. Johnson’s house was a delightful little lady who was way past American retirement age. She had encyclopedic knowledge of Johnson  – whether delivering her usual speech, or answering tourists’ questions. Much of what she said came straight from James Boswell’s extraordinary biography. Without it, Dr. Johnson would still be known as creator of the astounding lexicon, A Dictionary of the English Language; writer of plays, biographies, critiques, and poems; and author of the amazing travelogue, A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, but he would not be loved as a person we felt we almost knew  – and few tourists would bother to track down his home.

James Boswell (Painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds, National Portrait Gallery)

Over time, I’ve come to appreciate James Boswell more and more. He made it look so easy. His particular manner of questioning, hasty scribblings, careful inscriptions, and exhaustive visual studies of another human being combined to  allow him to paint a portrait in words that is so complete that it has no rival in secular writings.  It spares little, including Dr. Johnson’s many eccentricities, and his quirky movements, now considered the earliest, best description of the medical condition labeled later as Tourette’s Syndrome. Other biographers continue to tackle Samuel Johnson, and I have enjoyed reading some of those books, too, but the electricity is not there. The congenial situation of the men’s trip through the Hebrides; the combination of their intellects, wit, and curiosities; and Boswell’s unabashed fascination with Johnson keep the book alive.

Then, after all of that – after unleashing a great waterfall of words concerning Samuel Johnson –  Boswell still had enough inexpressible impressions left over to write, “Every man feels for himself, and knows how he is affected by particular qualities in the person he admires, the impressions of which are too minute and delicate to be substantiated in language.” The biographer said so well what cannot be said. The spirit of some personality interrelations just speaks of things we cannot yet know.

I think I’ll read that book again.

 

 

 

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Morning at the Farm

(Photo by Susan Taylor Block)

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Home, home with a Screen

by Susan Taylor Block

(Sung to the tune of “Home on the Range”)

 

1.Oh, give me some NEWS that’s not your own views

Of candidates striving to win;

I’d just like to see reports that are free

Of negative broadcaster spin.

 

Chorus

Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.

 

2. Oh, could it just be that one day we see

A saint as Commander-in-Chief;

Perfection in charge, a halo so large

He’d give us no shame, but much grief.

 

Chorus

Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.

 

3. So, give me a Prez who does what he says

And plays not for polls or for greed;

Who Loves our home land, and takes a strong stand

To build it, protect it – and LEAD.

 

Chorus

Home, home with a Screen

That gives us some bait and some switch;

One leader will fall, another will stall,

And networks get even more rich.

 

(With apologies and credit to poet Dr. Brewster M. Higley, who wrote the original lyrics; Daniel E. Kelley, who wrote the music; John A. Lomax, who edited Dr. Higley’s words; and David Guion, who arranged Kelley’s music.  “Home on the Range” was adopted as the state song of Kansas in 1947, decades after cowboys first sang it loudly on the open plains.) 

http://susantaylorblock.com/2010/10/31/witches-at-the-kettle/

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Third and Market, Northeast: The Colonial Inn

by Susan Taylor Block

The Colonial Inn (Photo courtesy of Cape Fear Museum)

The Colonial Inn, owned by Oscar Pearsall, occupied one of the best corners in town. Mr. Pearsall, his brother, Philander, and their partner, Benjamin Franklin Hall, owned Hall and Pearsall, a bustling wholesale grocery and guano products business. It was located on the corner of Nutt and Grace streets. Over time, the business grew and became known simply as Pearsall and Company. At the mixing plant, “where any grade of manipulated guano” could be manufactured, they created and stamped products with their own brand name. Ships and trains transported staples, hay, grain, and guano products to large markets in various parts of the U.S., especially New York and New England. Slower trains wound through the Wilmington area, too, delivering heavy loads of groceries, grain, and hay.

Oscar Pearsall (Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library)

Newspaper image from the Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Bill Reaves Collection, New Hanover County Public Library.

Oscar Pearsall had already made real estate news in 1894, when he transported his Carolina Beach cottage “through the sounds on floats, to Wrightsville,” where it was rebuilt on Wrightsville Sound. Then, in the Spring of 1903, Oscar moved a two-story frame residence, built by A. J. deRosset, from the northeast corner of Third and Market streets. He replaced it in 1903 with the Colonial Apartments building, pictured here about 1920.

The interior was elegant. Residents took their meals in a beautiful dining room, that doubled as a tea room in the afternoon. Ladies wore white gloves to tea, and were served from sterling pitchers.

In 1913, Mr. Pearsall took on another building project, but this time it was a church, Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian. Ironically, the church’s most famous minister, Dr. B. Frank Hall, was a grandson of Pearsall’s old business partner, Civil War veteran Benjamin Franklin Hall. The two families shared strong ties outside of work. All contributed generously to faith-based efforts, especially those linked to Presbyterian churches. Oscar supported church education work, and apparently gave the land and underwrote the entire cost of building Pearsall Memorial Presbyterian Church. Philander Pearsall fully supported a foreign missionary and was superintendent of an African American mission. Benjamin Franklin Hall, brother of Mrs. James Sprunt, gave generously to First Presbyterian Church and a Presbyterian medical missionary station in China.

The Colonial Inn burned, April 25, 1962. The building pictured on the right is the YMCA, constructed in 1912-13 to replace a smaller building at 305 North Front Street. D. H. Penton, president, and J. B. Huntington, general secretary, were champions of the move. The new YMCA boasted many welcome features, including a basketball court with ample space for spectators – and a large swimming pool – one of the chilliest imaginable.

In stark contrast to the graceful Colonial Inn, YMCA’s rental spaces were utilitarian in decor. They were leased to most guests by the month, with the exception of visiting seamen, who were allowed to rent by the day. The YMCA building was destroyed July 20, 1970.

(Basis of article from the book, Cape Fear Lost, copyright 1999, by the author. Copies are available at amazon.com. All proceeds benefit Cape Fear Museum.)

Sources: James Sprunt, Chronicles of the Cape Fear River; Bill Reaves files: Wilmington Star (New Hanover County Public Library); conversation with Betsy Pearsall; Family files, Historical Society of the Lower Cape Fear; Cape Fear Museum.

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Snakes ‘n Grapes

by Susan Taylor Block

(Cover design by A. B. Moore)

How to Gossip Nicely, a tongue-in-cheek commentary, is now available on kindle.

Gossip, “people news” transmitted casually, follows random paths and moves quickly. It has the power to help, harm, misinform, or clarify. Drawing the line is tough, and we’ve all crossed it at some time or another, but toeing the line still leaves room for plenty of connections, and some fun.

Though initially macabre, the following gossip story always amused my grandmother. It’s a good illustration of “Gossip Game,” or “Telephone Game” gossip. When she was about twenty years old, she was bedridden with an illness that lasted a week or two. Telephone service was primitive then, about 1910, and often two or more households shared the same phone line. Just when someone was sharing news of Nana’s illness on one line, another person was relating the story of someone’s death on another. The next day, my grandmother woke up to read her own obituary! As it turned out, Nana lived until 1984, so that bit of casually co-transmitted news was unreliable to the extreme.

This readable book, written by a native North Carolinian, is a Southern product with a Southern flair. Great art was supplied by A. B. Moore, an exciting young artist from Charlotte. Betty Baird Rusher, raised in bucolic Oxford, NC, contributed recipes for delectable grape dishes. Robert Hill Camp, a descendant of Jamestown’s earliest settlers, served as copy editor.

I was tickled to read publisher Bernie Reeves’ review of the book in Metro Magazine: “Block is to gossip as Marie Curie is to plutonium, investigating each molecule. Very entertaining, well written, and true.” – Bernie Reeves

To hear a Internet-radio discussion about How to Gossip Nicely, go to www.globaltalkradio.com/shows/inthenews  -then scroll down and click on the correct line:  2011-Dec-21.

(Coming soon: The old Northrop Cottage at Wrightsville Beach, and the mysterious photo.)

 

 

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Christmas Lullabye at the Nursing Home

by Susan Taylor Block

Mother9.1.2013LR

My mother lives in the memory care wing of a local retirement center – a handsome and well-run facility. Though each patient has serious, documented memory loss, there is so much left of their former selves to celebrate. General manners plus wit and wisdom seem to survive. So does spelling, as evidenced in an old fashioned and rather difficult “spelling bee” I attended there recently. Also, the interesting  interplay of lifelong personalities doubtless mimics their specific place in groups from years past. Each individual seems to fall vaguely into customary roles such as cut-up, comforter, boss, critic, follower, or cheerleader.

In general, the ladies who frequent the unit’s living room are less advanced in disease than some others in the Alzheimer’s and dementia wing. Their faces are well-known to me now, like distant relatives grown familiar through reunions. Candid photographs of most would reveal their advanced senior citizen status, but would offer scant evidence of cognitive impairment. They have character in their faces, and they have presence. Some exhibit off-the-cuff humor. One or two of them are still masters of sarcasm, and still know how to deliver much information by facial expression alone.

The majority had been housewives during their younger days. A couple were teachers. By vocation, my mother was a business woman and, by avocation, a serious student of the starry sky. Often, Mother cited the story of the Three Wise Men as reason enough for her pursuit.

Mother seems to be a perfect example of patients who can retain startling clarity in certain ways, and strong consistency of personality amid dementia. I offer two of many possible examples:

She managed a local family-owned business for 25 years, a job that involved much typing. After someone donated a typewriter to the Memory Care unit, Mother sat down and without any prompting pounded out the words, “There will be no down time for employees today. Work through lunch.”

On another occasion, she asked me, “How long is the longest book you’ve written?”

“388 pages,” I answered.

“That’s too long. Don’t you have advisors? Why didn’t someone tell you to shorten it?” she responded.

“It didn’t need shortening,” I answered. “In fact, quite a few people said they read it twice.”

“They had to, Susan. By the time they reached the end of it, they had forgotten the beginning.”

As for the stars, Mother is still amazingly accurate. I enjoy bringing news of what I hear of planets, orbits, comets, and eclipses. She corrects me when I don’t use language that’s technically correct and requests that I keep bringing her bulletins of changes in the heavens, a subject about which she published articles in her younger days. Mother had studied business at WC, now UNCG, but one day, about 1968, decided she needed to know more math to better understand the heavens. I was a teenager taking trigonometry at Hoggard High School at the time, and, switching roles, she asked me to teach her what I learned. She mastered it quickly. I think her mind-challenging hobby from the past, and her relentless dedication to walking in recent years have helped keep some negative mental and physical processes at bay.

The Memory Care living room sports a pretty raised-hearth fireplace, and an array of sofas and chairs that accommodate about twelve people. Eight seats were filled when I visited last Sunday, December 11. That day, most of the ladies were staring at a new 5-foot tall Christmas tree, sitting atop a table. Its white lights blinked uneven patterns and the speed of it accelerated through sequences that went from no glows, to many.

The busy lights caused much comment from the different ladies. Here’s a sampling:

“Someone needs to come in here and fix that tree.”

“We need an electrician.”

“Look!  There it goes again. It’s weird.”

“It’s just plain spooky.”

“I like it.”

“I wish they would haul it away.”

“No, just take the lights off.”

“I’m scared.”

No matter what their opinion, they couldn’t stop looking at the tree. Though annoying, the lights’ staccato rhythms stimulated their minds and arrested their attention. I wondered if there wasn’t a catalogue somewhere from which nursing homes order products with such purposes.

In the midst of the blink-a-blink, a well-dressed North Carolina native who is a new resident walked into the living room and asked the attending nursing assistant for a listening ear. The assistant replied that she had lots of time to listen.

“I just want to know where all the people of my life have gone. One day I had many friends that I had known for years, and now I am here and I don’t know a soul. I had a house and a church and they are all gone now. How did I get here? Can you help me find my friends?” She spoke slowly, well, and with great dignity. It was heartbreaking.

Wisely, the pretty, young assistant answered, “It might help me to find your friends if you would you tell me about your life earlier.” That led to a recounting of the woman’s youth, civic activities, and her responsible position with a statewide organization. She seemed to feel better. All the while, the tree blinked and the other ladies continued their disjointed commentary.

Suddenly, the assistant had another good idea that helped all the ladies: She rebooted the unit’s CD player. Soon, symphonic strains of “Away in a Manger,” filled the room and they all began to sing. There was no hesitation or grappling for words. Most, including Mother, finished the first two verses. The sound of her singing warmed me, and “Away in a Manger” took on new layers of meaning.

I looked around the circle of faces and saw no great joy or sorrow, just peace. Many of them looked straight ahead, as if gazing deep into space. For that short melodic time, blinking tree lights were immaterial. The ladies were unified in spirit and blessed recollection.

Their eyes were dry. Mine were not.

____________________________________________________________________________________

Away in a Manger

by James R. Murray (1841-1905), subtitled Luther’s Cradle Hymn. Third verse by John T. McFarland, 1904.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.
The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.

The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes,
But little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes;
I love Thee, Lord Jesus, look down from the sky
And stay by my cradle ’til morning is nigh.

Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay
Close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care,
And take us to Heaven to live with Thee there.

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