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State's oldest house revealed in Edenton

North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources

The house had been dated as circa 1900… much in line with the other houses in the neighborhood. The owner’s plan was to turn it into a rental property and work got underway.

“Wayne Griffin, a very talented restoration carpenter, was doing some repairs on the house to convert it into a rental house for Steve and Linda Lane and in the process he found original framing members behind the beadboard that were whitewashed, and he called a restoration carpenter Don Jordan who came over and looked at it who called Samuel Denton, a local attorney, who called me and said I think we’ve found a medieval house in Edenton, how soon can you get there.”

“Me” is Reid Thomas, who works with the state Historic Preservation Office as a restoration specialist. 

“We saw, and I think the thing we saw that made us think this house might be really early were these massive ceiling joists that had this nice robust ogee molding on the edges and that was something we’d never quite seen like that in NC.”

When all was said and done this house believed to be about 110 years old was in fact closing in on 300 years old… determined to be built around 1718 or 1719, making it the oldest dated house in the state, wresting the honor from a Duplin County home dated as 1726. The key factor in establishing when the home was constructed was examination of the timbers used in the home... specifically an examination of the tree rings using dendrochronology, a science which can determine the exact year when a tree was felled… sometimes even down to which season. Despite the passage of time Reid Thomas says the house is surprisingly intact.

“The flooring on the first floor has been changed and the original staircases have been taken out but the frame itself which during the first period is largely intact and the whitewash on both the first floor and upper floor, the whitewash was a lime paint that was made by burning oyster shells in a kiln and slaking them with water and it made a very durable finish which I think was more for brightening up dimly lit interior spaces in this period.”

The only additions to the house… originally about 16 X 25 feet with two rooms on each of its two floors… are a porch and an addition to the shed portion at the house’s back. Thomas says envision the house with period materials rather than its current asbestos siding and metal roof and you know what the house looked like in its earliest days. The social strata of its first resident is another question with the home having some characteristics of the period’s “upper crust.”

“One real interesting descriptions of the town occurs in 1728 when William Byrd was surveying the area and he mentions there may be 40-50 houses most of them small and built without expense. “A citizen is considered extravagant if he has aspiration enough to build a brick chimney” and we know this house had two chimneys.”

Reid Thomas says the home might today seem crude but at the time could’ve been “fine living.” Edenton wasn’t incorporated until 1722… four years after the home was built. So whoever its first residents, they were… like everyone else there at the time… just getting started, with the finer things in life still decades away.

“They were just moving into the area and trying to get established in whatever occupation they were in, whether its farming or business or mercantile or shipping. It was a hard life. I think the most important thing was to get something built but not put all your effort into that when you really needed to do everything you could to make a living at that point.”

As far as making a living from the house today as rental housing as originally planned… not right away. Reid Thomas hopes there might be additional architectural investigations, paint research and even archaeological digs. But that’s apparently o-k… he says owners Steve and Linda Lane “are willing to continue forward with the research.”

Reid Thomas is a restoration specialist for the state Historic Preservation Office.

George Olsen is a 1977 Havelock High School graduate. He received his B.A. in Broadcast Journalism from the University of South Carolina in 1982 where he got his first taste of non-commercial radio working for their student station WUSC. After graduation he worked about five years in commercial radio before coming to work at Public Radio East where he has remained since outside of a nearly 3-year stint as jazz and operations coordinator at WUAL in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in the early 1990s. On his return to eastern North Carolina he hosted classical music for Public Radio East before moving into the Morning Edition host position and now can be heard on All Things Considered. He also hosts and produces The Sound, five hours of Americana, Roots Rock and Contemporary Folk weekday evenings on PRE Public Radio East News & Ideas, and is a news and feature producer for Public Radio East.