Historic Stagville: Christmas on the plantation

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 06:55 PM

Modest decorations peppered the Historic Stagville plantation home on Saturday, the plain white house surrounded by gray skies and barren trees. Wreaths hung from few doors, and strings of cranberries and popcorn lined a cupboard.

Historians and volunteers opened the doors of the home and slave quarters this weekend, sharing history about the holiday traditions of yesteryear.

Plantation owner Richard Bennehan and his family bought the land for the plantation in 1776, coincidental to the signing of the Declaration of Independence and his descendants held onto it for 200 years. It was the largest plantation in North Carolina prior to the Civil War and among the largest in the South. At its antebellum height in 1860, it comprised some 30,000 acres and 900 slaves.

Groups on Saturday walked through the creaky homestead the Bennehans built in 1787. Bennehan himself would live long enough to help found the city of Raleigh and the University of North Carolina.

“Out here on the plantation, it’s very far from the local store, so there weren’t any ornaments,” said 12-year-old Isabel Seed, as she strung red cranberries and popcorn together using a needle. “You had to make your own.”

Seed is a youth volunteer at Stagville, and she said she tries to escape having to wear bonnets during reenactments. She’s also a big Harry Potter fan — dipping a quill into a jar of ink Saturday, she scribbled over an antique likeness of Santa, writing, “Dumbledore’s Evil Twin.”

Nine-year-old Victoria Goswick sat next to her, also drawing with a white quill.

“It has more warmth,” Goswick said of the plantation at Christmastime.

“It seems less empty and haunted,” Seed added.

In the Horton Grove slave quarters, where five to seven enslaved people once shared one room, actors participated in Jonkonnu, an African custom in which men would dress in costumes made of animal skins and rags, dance and play musical instruments. The Jonkonnu men would go from home to home in towns to perform, according to UNC Libraries.

Woven between happy Christmas rituals were reminders of slavery surrounding the plantation home, where a cowry shell was found near the kitchen foundation. The shell was brought from West Africa, where it was used as currency and as decoration. Stories of escaped slaves had different endings. An enslaved woman at Stagville escaped and was eventually reunited with her children after the Civil War.

Another enslaved man was shipped north and never heard from again.

On the second story in the plantation home, Rick Sheets, who makes historic artwork out of cow horns, was dressed like it was 1759. He said he picked up the craft years ago, because it brings together his favorite things — calligraphy, illuminated script, which uses gold or silver, and engraving and black powder.

“Do you like my stockings?” he asked 4-year-old Abraham Sousa.

Sousa nodded, then covered his ears when Sheets picked up a flintlock pistol.

“I promise you don’t have to do that,” Sheets said, showing the boy it wasn’t loaded.

In the next room, Jessie Eustice led a tour, having volunteered at Stagville now for five months. She lifted blankets, showing off feather and corn husk bedding, and pointed out the original glass panes in the windows.

“I understand how the women must’ve felt in 1787,” Eustice said. “It can get really isolated here, but right now at Christmas, there are music and crafts and food.”