The Bennehan Home
The vernacular Georgian style of the Bennehan Home may seem austere and unadorned by today’s standards of wealth. However, it was impressive for the times. On its hill top location surrounded by fields, the house was a visible statement of the Bennehan’s social and economic status.
No surviving accounts accurately disclose the name of the builder(s) or cost of construction of the Bennehan Home. It is also unknown exactly when the house was built and when the Bennehans moved to Stagville, although it was probably 1787 or later. The two-story addition was completed in 1799. The house was built of heart pine. All of the woodwork in the interior is original, and the majority of the woodwork on the exterior is believed to be original. Richard Bennehan ordered panes of glass from England for his house, and much of this fine glass is still intact. The brick chimneys are believed to be early replacements.
Behind the Home
It is difficult to imagine Historic Stagville as a busy place, without most of the trees that surround it now. The house was once surrounded by open fields, and as it sits on a hill, it was visible from miles around. It is important to remember that this was the center of an enormous plantation complex. A wide variety of tasks would have taken place around the Bennehan Home and its dependencies, and the road leading to the house would have been busy with wagons, carriages, and horses.
Surviving family documents and archaeological evidence suggest that a number of outbuildings were built around the house. These buildings included a detached kitchen, a 12′ x 12′ log smokehouse, a small frame milk house, a stable, and at least two one-room, one-story slave houses. It is believed that a small kitchen garden in this area supplied vegetables and herbs to the cooks.
The Horton Home
Richard Bennehan purchased 410 1/2 acres of land and the Horton House from William Horton on October 24, 1823. The Horton family were yeoman farmers, or subsistence farmers, that raised what they needed to support themselves. Their house was a small, well-constructed plank house built before the Revolutionary War.
The original portion of the home consisted of one room with a small loft, which was accessed by climbing a narrow, steep, enclosed stairway. Plank shutters covered the window openings, which did not have glass panes. Although the house is typically modest for its time and place, it does have several unusual features such as skillfully beaded ceiling joists.
It is believed that the rear addition, which incorporates brick nogging, was constructed around the same time the slave houses were built at Horton Grove (1851-1860). At this time, it probably housed an overseer or a slave family. The Horton Home thus provides an interesting juxtaposition to the enslaved homes, demonstrating both an economic and cultural change in the area from subsistence farming to large-scale plantation farming using slave labor to produce cash crops.
It is important to realize that the Horton Home was typical of the kinds of houses many whites lived in during the antebellum period in North Carolina. A major restoration of the Horton Home has included the reconstruction of a stone chimney and hearth, the installation of wooden floors, a wood shingle roof, and new siding. All of this work has been done with an attempt to match the original materials as closely as possible.
Constructed between 1851 and 1860, Stagville’s two-story, four-room timber-frame quarters are rare survivors of an unusual form of enslaved homes. Throughout the South, a typical enslaved house would have been a one-room, one-story structure. However, the number of individuals housed in each room at Horton Grove was probably about the same as elsewhere, being from five to seven individuals.
The design of the Horton Grove slave houses employed brick nogging, which not only provided insulation from the heat and cold, but also deterred rodent infestation, which could have created health problems. Family records reveal the design of these buildings was a deliberate attempt on Paul Cameron’s part to provide a healthier living environment for his slaves. In other words, his architectural investment protected his human investment.
Though in need of complete restoration, some of the Horton Grove slave dwelling have received partial restoration in recent years.
The Great Barn
Though difficult to imagine today, there were open fields surrounding the structure when the enslaved first raised the barn. Once could have easily seen Horton Grove just up the road, as well as the Bennehan House up on the hill.
The barn was built during the summer of 1860 from huge timbers felled and milled on nearby plantation land. Paul Cameron oversaw the construction, which was carried out by the enslaved. The structural members of the barn were hand hewn, while the flooring and siding were prepared in the sawmill. The barn still features this skillfully executed and seldom-seen complex joinery.
The barn served primarily to house mules, which operated the farming equipment and wagons on the plantation. It was a source of great pride to Paul Cameron, who wrote to his father-in-law, Thomas Ruffin, in September 1860, “I have a great wish to show you the ‘best stables’ ever built in Orange (at Stagville) 135 feet long covered with cypress shingles at a cost of $6 per thousand.”
The barn was the last major structure built on the plantation and represented the culmination of Paul Cameron’s construction efforts throughout the 1850s. It is a testament to the land’s agricultural potential, the Cameron’s prosperity, and the skills of the enslaved craftsmen.