Could it be? In our house? We were surprised recently to find that some of our furniture and woodwork were designed before the Civil War by a free black man who is slowly gaining national recognition as a major figure in the history of cabinet making.
From 1820 to 1861, Thomas Day hired dozens of workers, both white and black, to build his unique works in nearby Milton, N.C. In fact, he sold more of them in North Carolina than any other manufacturer.
Finally, the talented African-American has gained recognition for his craftsmanship and his bold business sense by the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, the Museum of History in Raleigh, N.C., his hometown of Milton and the region’s tourist industry. All have been displaying and promoting this craftsman’s handiwork.
While organizing a tour of his works in the area, we invited Jerome Bias, a woodworker and expert on Thomas Day to visit our house. Though it can’t be proven, he figured that Day made or had employees make the main staircase and newel and the front entranceway. In an upstairs bedroom, he made the baseboards, windows and mantel, and he made a table that is in the parlor.
Day was famous for his designs that included undulating shapes and spiraling forms with S-curves. The governor of North Carolina bought 37 of his pieces for the statehouse, giving Day an amazing two-month deadline.
Though black, Day was one of the wealthiest people in the region until the Panic of 1857, when his business went to pieces. He had overextended himself, and the law prevented him from collecting from white debtors. Though his shop in Milton, N.C., survived, his business was wiped out by the Civil War, and he died in 1861. In Milton, local people of all races have raised money to restore the home and factory where so much furniture was made.
Oak Grove Plantation Bed & Breakfast will just be one of the stops on the tour we are organizing with the Halifax County Virginia Tourism and other groups. People can use our guide map to take it on their own or we can show them some of the sites. It includes Breezy Oaks Farm in Alton, Villa Cathedral Country Home Bed and Breakfast in Alton, the Oak Tree Tavern at Virginia International Raceway in Alton, the South Boston-Halifax County Museum and the Molasses Grill restaurant in Halifax.
You won’t want to miss The Thomas Day House in Milton, a few hundred feet south of the Virginia border. Restored in 1989 after a fire, Day’s home and workshop contain much of his furniture, mantels and tools of the era. Two films also can be seen of his life and his contributions. The museum is open by appointment.