By Megan Bame
For the Salisbury PostThe sign by the road proclaims, “Future home of the Nathan Brown House Museum.” Passersby may not notice the progress being made on the unassuming white farmhouse that sits on the property. They may wonder what sort of museum it will become. Some may even ask, “Who was this Nathan Brown?”
Certainly in the East Rowan area, Brown is a familiar name, or perhaps, “Braun,” as in Michael Braun, whose home has also become a museum (The Old Stone House). Nathan Brown was the great-grandson of Michael. Nathan’s farm sat along what is now U.S. 52, near East Rowan High School, in Granite Quarry.
The Old Stone House is the oldest structure in Rowan County, built in the mid-1700s. Events and activities at the Old Stone House feature the 18th-century time period.
Supporters of the Nathan Brown House restoration envision a museum that will complement the history lessons of the Old Stone House.
The Nathan Brown House was built a century later in the mid-1800s. Though remodeling efforts over the years have changed the house to accommodate modern conveniences (such as indoor plumbing and electricity), the restoration group plans to return it, as close as possible, to its original design. Their goal is to create a museum for the community and for thousands of schoolchildren to illustrate the life and times of the 19th century.
The Nathan Brown House was preserved in part because of its historic significance to Christiana Lutheran Church. From 1869 to 1871, as many as 20 families met at Nathan Brown’s house for worship. The other area Lutheran churches, Union and St. John’s, were often difficult to travel to by horse and buggy. The Brown house was a central location for the community to meet for fellowship. The worshippers, known as the Union Sunday School, split in 1871 to form Christiana Lutheran Church and St. Luke’s Reformed Church.
The founding families of Christiana continued to meet at the Brown house for six months while the church was being built nearby. It’s no coincidence that all the founding members of the non-profit organization, Nathan Brown House, Inc. were also members of Christiana Lutheran Church. Though the church is not officially part of the project, Ann Carlan, president of the organization, is thankful that the church supports their efforts.
In the 1950s, the house was moved from its original location to a nearby parcel of land now owned by a Nathan Brown descendant, Marcus Brown.
For the latter part of the 20th century, the home was a rental property.
In 2001, Mark Brown, Marcus’ son, began developing the property as a vineyard and winery. Eventually, the needs of the vineyard encroached on the property where the house sat and Marcus made the house available to anyone willing to move it. A group from Christiana saw an opportunity and the planning and the fundraising began.
Carlan happened to own an undeveloped lot that was once part of the Nathan Brown estate. Although she once intended to build a home there, those plans long ago changed. With no future plans for the property, she decided to donate the property for the purpose of creating historic continuity. Though the house has rested in three distinct locations, it has never left the property once belonging to Nathan Brown.
Moving the house cost around $20,000. While it seemed at the time a monumental hurdle, a successful fundraising effort cemented their commitment to the project. But there was no time to rest on their laurels. The next task would be stabilizing the house by underpinning it with a foundation.
While it’s most likely that the house was originally built on granite pillars, the current building code requires a more substantial foundation. For $15,000, they were able to secure the house using granite pillars and brick and mortar. For period accuracy, they hope to use appropriate landscape plantings to hide the areas between the granite.
To date, the group has raised $46,500, of which $17,000 came from individual donations. For a group of 10 to 20 active members, ranging in age from 30 to 86, raising that amount of money in less than two years has been quite an accomplishment.
Gilbert and Madge Russell have enjoyed working on the house and the fundraising projects, especially getting to know the other members of the group better. Madge is a Brown descendant, and given that she and Gilbert have been married for more than 60 years, he’s considered part of the Brown family, too.Madge recounts that they’ve been fortunate to have various members of the group with certain talents that help the group move forward. Those individuals include a certified public accountant, an attorney, several men with construction backgrounds, and of course Madge, who uses her talents in the kitchen.
The group meets weekly at Christiana with two questions to discuss: “What’s the next step on the house?” and “How are we going to pay for it?” Since they haven’t set any sort of timeline, they’ve easily adopted a “pay as we go” strategy.
Monthly fundraisers have generated the bulk of their resources with yard sales, one in the spring and one in the fall, bringing in the most money. In addition to serving prepared meals for a freewill donation, the group has started thinking outside the box.
For instance, this Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m., the group will be hosting a Christmas in July celebration. The fellowship hall at Christiana Lutheran Church will be decked out with 10 unique Christmas-themed table-top displays. The smell and taste of Christmas goodies, including fruit cake and a traditional German Stollen, are sure to put guests in the spirit of the season. There will be musical entertainment (Christmas tunes, of course) and a silent auction of several items contributed by artistic members of the group. There’s no admission, only a freewill offering to benefit the museum.
The money raised will most likely go toward buying lumber to build the porch so that the house will be more accessible. Other major projects include rebuilding two chimneys, removing the aluminum siding and repairing the wood siding underneath, installing granite steps leading to the porch, and adding the appropriate outbuildings according to a drawing of the original property.
The work on the interior of the house has revealed a few exciting restoration finds. The work has included stripping the ceilings and walls to the original tongue and groove planks. While many modern remodelers dread removing wallpaper, the wallpaper of the 1920s presented a whole new challenge: nails.
While Carlan carefully preserved remnants of wallpaper from each room, the real historical perspective may be in the method of hanging wallpaper.
“Since the wooden walls were smooth,” Carlan explains, “the wallpaper wouldn’t adhere directly to the walls. To create a textured surface, fine cheesecloth was nailed to the walls and the wall paper was then glued to the cheesecloth.”
The task of removing thousands of nails is daunting, but already in progress.
The architectural design of the house is known as “a story and a jump.”
Essentially, there was an unfinished upstairs which may have served as a sleeping loft or storage. The “ghost,” or outline, of the original, narrow staircase was uncovered along a wall in the front room. At some point through the years, that staircase was removed in favor of one built in the middle of the house which divided the upstairs space into two rooms.
The group is always on the lookout for free, period materials. In most cases, they hear of a home from the 1800s being torn down and they go in to salvage brick (for the restored chimneys), windows, doors, clapboard siding, and the like. In other cases, individuals have come forth, as was the case with two granite troughs from the original homestead, used in that day to water horses.
As weather permits and schedules allow, renovation work will continue on the house. In the meantime, funds will be raised and plans will be made so that this piece of history may one day offer a glimpse into another era of Rowan County’s heritage.
If you would like to know more about Nathan Brown House, Inc. or join in the restoration effort, contact Ann Carlan at 704-633-5758.
By Megan Bame