Christmas Tour is a big hit

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 9, 2004

MURFREESBORO – With candles lining a dimly lit path, volunteers prepared their stations for a flood of approximately 500 spectators eager to take a step back in time as they enjoyed the sights and sounds of Murfreesboro’s annual Candlelight Christmas Tour.

The event, which is hosted by the Murfreesboro Historical Association, drew many local folk along with busloads of people from nearby areas and marked yet another year of tradition, fellowship and fun.

As patrons entered the doors of the Roberts-Vaughn House, which now houses the Historic Association and the Chamber of Commerce, they were greeted with the romantic sound of a solo violin resonating holiday tunes and volunteers dressed in era appropriate attire followed by a beautiful spread of delicious foods.

The house boasted charming evergreen decorations amidst displays of items such as Della Brown’s wedding dress and display of a delicate doll recovered from the yard of Emilie Lawrence Reed, who buried it as a child during the Civil War to keep her from being stolen or damaged.

&uot;By the time Emilie went back to retrieve the doll, her body and clothing had deteriorated,&uot; said Josie Heath sharing a brief history. &uot;Emilie, who grew up in Murfreesboro, eventually met and married Dr. Walter Reed with whom she traveled, taking the doll’s head with her wherever she went,&uot; she said.

In time, the doll would find its way back to the Reed family by request of Emilie’s great grandniece, Elizabeth Groner, who kept it stored in the safety of a vault in Winton for about 10 years before unearthing it fully restored for its first public viewing in years.

&uot;We feel very privileged to have her on display,&uot; said Carole Farnham, site manager for the Roberts-Vaughn House. &uot;The history she carries with her ought to be shared. I couldn’t think of a better time to unveil her.&uot;

Next stop on the tour was Chowan College. After opening in 1848 as a four-year college for women, under the name Chowan Baptist Female Institute, the school is the second of seven oldest Baptist colleges in North Carolina. Having undergone many changes from the construction of the landmark McDowell Columns building in 1851 to a brief period during the Civil War where the college was closed, a name change to Chowan College in 1910, the admittance of male students in 1931 and transformation from a four-year college to a two-year institution six years later as a result of the Great Depression, the college returned to its status as a four-year school in 1992, when it admitted a junior class and is now part of the historic tour.

Blessed by the voices of the Chowan College Choir accompanied by the leadership of Greg Parker, visitors enjoyed a variety of holiday songs as they walked through the beautifully adorned building.

Following a flickering trail of lights to the Murfreesboro Historic Association’s Gift Shop and former home to the Murfree-Smith Law Offices, visitors could take their pick of fragrant candles, jewelry, historic literature of the area and even uniquely crafted hand-made soaps among other memorable items.

Although transformed into an apartment in recent years, the basement of the old office once served as a jail and temporary holding cell for those in trouble with the law.

Across the street from the gift shop, the Transportation and Agricultural Building boasted a grand display of old carriages and peanut machines along with the Gatling Aeroplane of 1873.

&uot;It’s a lot of fun,&uot; said pilot J.D. Kesler, who volunteered for the event last year.

At the Exhibits Building, Chowan Graphics Professor Mike Stezak demonstrated some of the old printing presses used in the mid 1800’s.

&uot;Prior to electricity, these machines were operated manually,&uot; he said nearing his foot to a pedal at the base of a letterpress now attached to a compressor.

&uot;Before technological advances made it possible for newspaper and printing industries to construct pages with computer-based tools, lettering for each story had to be molded out of lead,&uot; said Stezak.

Bill Sewell, who was the very first graduate of Chowan College’s Graphic program in 1950, said he &uot;enjoyed every minute&uot; of his teaching career.

&uot;If I wasn’t so old I’d go back to teaching it, but technology has progressed so much I’d be lost,&uot; he said.

The next stop on the tour led visitors to the William Rea Museum where curator Jen Hodge shared stories about the oldest brick commercial building in North Carolina, built in 1790.

Standing in the back room in the company of the gospel-singing Sojourners, Hodge gently picked up old paperwork from the desk of the Judge Thomas Maney, the attorney in the early 1800’s that wrote the address to French general Marquis De Lafayette when he came to help the U.S. gain its independence from the British during the Revolutionary War.

Patrons savored bites of mouth-watering lobster bisque before entering a room filled with memorabilia from the famous Gatling family, including its original rounds from the ship, a signal light, polished silver dinnerware, a bell and flags that flew on the mast of the old destroyer among other items.

Also available for viewing was the famous Gatling gun and a hand-carved model of the USS Gatling DD 671 recently donated to the museum by the son of the now deceased Earnest E. Vagi Sr. whose work was so impressive he was asked to perform work for the Smithsonian Institute.

In the Evan’s Tin Shop, George Evans, grandson of Joseph Evans told stories alongside his wife, Pattie, of how he came to be the owner of the great heritage.

&uot;My grandfather came down from Petersburg, Virginia to visit with his brother Richard, my uncle, in 1878 and he ended up liking it and moving to the area,&uot; he said.

Answering an ad in the newspaper for a tinsmith, Joseph Evans worked making biscuit cutters and baking pans until the Industrial Revolution forced them to expand the business to the more lucrative venue of crafting tools for cutting tin for tin roofs.

&uot;After my grandfather died, Richard soon followed, leaving the business to his son, John, who employed my father, Edwin, in putting on roofs for local businesses and residences,&uot; he said.

&uot;In 1912, my father was helping John put a roof on the home of Bob Lee in Como (great grandfather of the attorney in Murfreesboro), and met the lady who would later become my mother,&uot; George Evans said.

Eventually Edwin Evans became the owner of the business and passed it along to George and Pattie as a wedding gift. Today, the couple lives in the home with a tin roof George’s father helped put on.

Next door at the Blacksmith shop, Hugh Vincent, the great grandson of the original Blacksmith, shared pieces of his heritage. &uot;This picture,&uot; he said pointing to an old photo, &uot;is my great grandfather and this is a letter written to him commending him for his work.&uot; The letter and the photo, dated to sometime around 1864, during the Civil War, were just some of the items guests enjoyed as they walked through the building eating freshly roasted peanuts and listening to bluegrass tunes of the Cotton Pickin’ Chicken Pickers on mandolin, banjo and guitar.

For those who like cheese and wine, the Country Store or Windborne Building offered a sampling of both. While people munched on their snacks, soft Christmas songs on guitar entertained them.

Edging close to the end of the tour, volunteers at the John Wheeler House told of the life and accomplishments of the home’s owner and his 19 children.

From the unique Giraffe Piano to the sunken in kitchen with full hearth, the home emitted a character and history right down to the stick built slave house in the back, which was opened for the first time to the public.

At the Murfree Center, guest enjoyed a sit-down dinner of smoked turkey, country ham and other delicious items before coming to their final stop in the grand dining room of the Hertford Academy across the street where their ears were caressed with the moving music of Chowan College President Dr. Christopher White on Piano accompanied by History Professor for Roanoke-Chowan Community College, Frank Harris.

The Candlelight Christmas Tour generates approximately one-third of the Historic Association’s operating budget for the year and employs about 100 volunteers.