Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2006
By Katie Scarvey
ELMWOOD — The current owners of one of Iredell County’s original plantations — who have recently opened up their private residence for tours — are no doubt more neighborly than its feisty original owner.
John McElwrath, who in the 1700s owned a 4,000-acre land-grant cotton plantation near Cleveland, was such a curmudgeon in his later years that he charged neighbors a nickel to cut across his land on their way to church, says Meredith Hall, who acquired the plantation in 1969.
McElwrath was, according to a 1760 deposition from Alexander Cathey, “a Person of Lewd Life and Conversation and a Common Disturber of his Majestys Peace.”
When McElwrath got upset with his neighbors to the south over some perceived slight, he took on a project that the Army Corps of Engineers — if it had existed — wouldn’t have dared to try.
He set out to divert the Yadkin River by having his men dig a canal.
When he died in 1785, his son — apparently a calmer sort — called a halt to the vendetta, and the project was never completed.
The two-story brick home that McElwrath built in 1753 is still standing and is used as an office by Meredith, who lives at what is now known as Darshana Hall Plantation with Susan, his wife since 1991.
The McElwrath house — one of the oldest in North Carolina — has two front doors but no back doors, a security measure that speaks to the hostilities between Native Americans and settlers.
Joseph McElwrath sold the plantation to the Chambers family in 1803.
In 1818, Joseph Chambers began to construct the Federal-style mansion the Halls live in today. The white-columned red brick structure, completed in 1830, was one of the finest homes in the area, with such grand features as its own wine cellar. Chambers extended McElwrath’s plantation holdings to 12,000 acres and 125 slaves.
In 1904, the plantation passed out of the Chambers family and went through a number of owners (who struggled with its expensive upkeep) before a committed history-lover –Meredith Hall — came along.
The Halls have put their own mark on the Chambers house, making it a more livable space. They built a 4,000 square-foot south wing in 2000, which added several bedrooms and baths. Besides converting what was once a cooling porch into a modern kitchen, the addition includes the impressive Great Hall. Designed by Meredith to be reminiscent of an English castle, the space boasts a 23-foot high ceiling and a second-floor gallery.
Susan got the Great Hall’s 17-foot Christmas tree from Pinola. It took nine men to put the 500-pound tree on top of her Suburban, she says, and about 21/2 days to put it up.
Decorating on that scale is a lot of work, but at least others can enjoy it. In 2005, the Halls opened Darshana Hall Plantation — now 17 acres instead of 12,000 — for public tours. The plantation was designated a National Historic Place by the Department of the Interior in 1973.
“Darshana” is a Sanskrit word, difficult to translate exactly, describing a place that can bring a feeling of blessing to the viewer, according to the Hindu religion — “a place where people can meet and feel good,” Meredith says.
Meredith’s family has lived on plantations in the south every generation since 1609, he says. His father grew up on Pinewood Plantation in Tennessee with 29 live-in servants.
“I didn’t grow up that way,” Meredith says.
But he did yearn to continue the family tradition, so when he had the opportunity to buy the Iredell County plantation 1969, he took it.
Hall worked as a psychologist at the Salisbury V.A. hospital from 1967 to 1972 and continues to practice independently.
Meredith loves learning about the history of the plantation and gladly shares stories with visitors.
According to local lore, the spirit of Granny Phyllis, one of plantation’s slaves, remains at Darshana Hall.
Granny Phyllis was brought to the plantation as a young woman by Henry Chambers in 1754. Said to be a trusted advisor to Joseph Chambers for many years, Granny Phyllis died at the Chambers plantation in 1855 at 125 years of age.
Many of the other slaves believed she had special powers, Meredith says. Legend has it that a slave-catcher came to the plantation one day when the owner was gone and began harassing the plantation’s African-American overseer.
Granny Phyllis and her dog Bucephalus were on hand as well, and not about to back down.
“I’ll kill you, and I’ll kill your dog,” the man reportedly told her. An unruffled Granny Phyllis reportedly smiled and didn’t look concerned, Meredith says, even when the man pulled out his pistol.
When he fired, the gun exploded in his face and killed him.
“Nobody messed with Granny,” Hall says.
Whether or not that’s a true story, Hall doesn’t know.
The Chambers family was reputed to be humane to their slaves, Hall says, with every slave receiving a physical from a doctor every year. Slaves also had access to several ponds from which they could fish for food if they didn’t like the regular fare offered them.
The Chambers family kept scrupulous records, writing down the date and time of each slave’s birth and death — which has helped many people trace their ancestry. Descendants of the Chambers family slaves took a tour of Darshana Hall recently, Meredith says.
Visitors touring the den can see family portraits from six centuries, including one from the 1660s that features an ancestor — probably French, Meredith says — who as an act of penance walked on his knees to a cathedral in Spain.
There’s also a print of Pocahontas that has special meaning to Meredith because she is his 15th great grandmother, he says.
The home features an unsupported curved staircase built by master builder Jacob Stirewalt — which has no beams but is supported by the weight of each step on the one beneath it.
The original wainscoting, plaster moldings and wood floors remain today.
Hall points out the window above the stairs, which is angled outward to allow more light into the home, and the sturdy back door, which features wood pegs and a dead man’s lock requiring two hands to open.
If you take a tour, the Halls will likely point out a cupped doorsill worn down by countless feet over the years.
An inveterate collector, Meredith might share a glimpse of his extensive pipe collection, which numbers about 300. Visitors can also meet Boris, a stuffed boar’s head (a Metrolina Flea Market find) that would look right at home in a medieval castle.
Outside, there’s a pre-Civil War cannon and Meredith’s collection of automobiles, which include a 1934 Mercedes, a 1941 Cadillac and a 1951 Jeep, plus a Rolls Royce, a Bentley and an old ambulance.
The Halls enjoy opening their home for meetings and tours and hope to be able to host weddings by next spring.
Contact Katie Scarvey at 704-797-4270 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More photographs, pages 4B-5B