Living History Days go back in time at Fort Defiance

Oct. 27, 2013 @ 08:03 AM

An oxen walked up the hill toward the old plantation house in the frosty Saturday morning, a potter sat in the sun, crafting pinch pots, women cooked over an open fire and girls made cornhusk dolls.

As the sun began to break the cold, it looked like nothing had changed at the homestead of William Lenoir, surveyor, politician, war hero and namesake of the city of Lenoir, who completed construction of his iconic house in 1792.

The house still stands as it did then, with the original beams, bricks and floors. Not to mention the more than 300 original pieces in the home – not just original to the time period but original to the Lenoir family, even the furniture and bedspreads.

At one point, Lenoir owned 23,000 acres, a fully working plantation with crops, a smokehouse, blacksmith, dairy and grist mill, and the way Lenoir made his living: breeding horses.

Fort Defiance has stood in the Yadkin River Valley, staying true to its name and defying the march of time, for more than two centuries, a testament to the spirit that surveyed and settled the Western North Carolina frontier.

The home place is a snapshot of the rugged life on the frontier, and Saturday, as the frost evaporated and volunteers dressed in period clothes, working and interacting, that snapshot turned into an illusion, a virtual reality. No cars in earshot, no planes, no electronics; just life and sun and cold and work: the frontier.

It’s a group of volunteers breathing the life back into Lenoir’s house, braving the exceptionally cold weekend to give tours of the home, and to show how the basic needs of life were met at Fort Defiance, from growing the food to making textiles and clothes, to even making guns and powder horns.

From this past Wednesday, Oct. 23, to next Wednesday, Oct. 30, more than 1,000 schoolchildren and members of the public will see the hard work it took to civilize western North Carolina.

It’s Living History Days at Fort Defiance, and site director Becky Phillips said the event has been held annually since before she started volunteering at the site in 1987. But since 1996 a renewed priority on interpretive stations for kids has been the focal point.

That’s what has kept her doing this every year for the past 25 years, teaching the history of this place, “giving the history of what it took for our ancestors to settle this country. It’s harsh,” Phillips said. “I love to teach the kids, to see that light go on.”

Twenty volunteers demonstrated everything from outdoor, open-hearth cooking techniques to gun and powder horn making, pottery, yarn spinning, cornhusk doll-making, and even showed what it was like for the first frontiersman to live and camp outdoors at the time with a working frontier campsite.

Students from Caldwell, Burke and Wilkes County will see the demonstrations this week, and take tours of the home led by Ike Forester, the fourth-great-grandson of William Lenoir.

The inside of the home itself mirrors the period accuracy of the activity outside it, and walking through, it’s hard not to imagine Lenoir himself seated at his secretary desk, (circa 1710-1720 Virginia) writing letters that would shape the history of the region and the country.

Forester encourages questions as he leads the tours, most of them coming about Lenoir and his military campaigns, first with Native American encounters, then later with the Revolutionary War.

Through the tour, Forester points out two Chippendale mirrors, six of which Lenoir ordered through a Fayetteville merchant and were shipped from Scotland, as were the carpets, taking years to reach Fort Defiance.

The Lenoirs kept meticulous records, recording every happening in detail in journals, and as Forester led the way to a bedroom, where leaning on the bedframe was a prosthetic leg, purchased in Morganton shortly after the Civil War for one of Lenoir’s sons, who lost the leg in battle and who is buried at the family cemetery, just yards from the home.

It’s the small details that complete the picture at the Fort, the bald cyprus and chestnut trees that Lenoir planted himself, grown astoundingly large, and a tree that towers above them – the state’s oldest beech tree, estimated at more than 500 years old, which watched Lenoir’s first steps onto the property, and saw all six generations of Lenoirs that have lived at the site since.

“It’s important to teach about our history and heritage,” Phillips said. “Like the old saying goes, how do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been?”