Symphony home tour focuses on history

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 28, 2011

By Katie Scarvey
Salisbury-Rowan Symphony Guild president Tom Wolpert wanted to do something a little different this year with the organization’s annual Christmas tour.
“I thought with the economy what it is, we needed to step back and look at where we came from,” Wolpert said. “What are our roots?”
This is the first year the tour has been historic, notes Wolpert, who’s making a little history himself as the first man ever to head the guild.
This year’s impressive offering is the Christmas Tour of Southern Classics, set for the weekend of Dec. 3-4. The tour will venture out of Salisbury and into the western part of the county in the Mt. Ulla and Millbridge area.
One of the homes that should attract a great deal of interest is the Owen-Harrison Plantation, dating from 1843. Wolpert found out about the home from Sandy Kern, pastor of Thyatira Church, which has ties to the family that built the home.
The stately two-story brick home is nestled at the end of a lane flanked by cotton fields on Sloan Road (not far from Sloan Park) a reminder of its days as a prosperous plantation.
The home’s current owner is Merry Lane Davis Lauder Wilson — Lane, as she is known — who will be dressed in period costume during the tour.
Wolpert will assist with decorating the home, and he wants to keep it beautifully simple, with a focus on natural materials.
The slave quarters that used to sit behind the main house have long since crumbled to the ground, although some of the brick fragments are still in evidence, Lane says. The original detached brick kitchen is also gone.
Lane knows a great deal about the home’s history and is happy to share it with guests. James Owen, who was kin to Robert E. Lee, Lane says, built the home after serving as a corporal during the Indian Wars. He acquired the Sills Creek land on which his plantation was built in 1831. In 1840, at the age of 48, he married Mary Knox Patterson, a second cousin of President James Knox Polk, Lane says. He and Mary began building their home, certainly one of the most impressive in the county at the time.
Lane knows that the interior painting was completed in 1843 because the painter left his name with a flourish on a door in the attic.
The Owen family attended Thyatira Presbyterian Church, the area’s first Presbyterian house of worship and also part of this year’s tour.
Tragedy struck the family after their second child, Josiah was born. On the way home from Josiah’s baptism at Thyatira, as the story goes, Mary was injured in a buggy accident and did not survive. She died in 1844, leaving James with2-year-old daughter Frances and the baby Josiah.
James continued to work his plantation, growing cotton, among other things. Josiah died in 1852, followed by James in 1853.
The estate went to Frances’ uncles on her mother’s side, and although the house was empty, the plantation continued to prosper and was considered to be the finest farm in Rowan by the Carolina Watchman, with an abundance of hogs, sheep and cattle.
When she married at 19, in 1861, Frances Owen moved back into the home with her husband, John Mack Harrison. They had 12 children together. The property stayed in the family until it was bought in 1972 by Lane and her husband at the time, Kenneth Lauder. Lane’s parents, Clayton and Beulah Davis, were living on the adjoining farm.
An architect, Lane has restored the home respectfully, making it a place where a modern family can be comfortable without destroying its character. For example, she added bookshelves and corner cupboards strategically so she could get electricity and plumbing upstairs and hide the evidence.
One of the home’s amazing features is a huge plaster medallion in the living room, and Lane notes that the children who used to live there would zing it with their sling shots — so it’s sustained some damage over the years, although Lane has worked to restore it.
The home features a rare, restored Sards of London piano, made between 1825-1835 of beautiful burled walnut. During the tour, guild member Dotty Clement will play carols on it.
Lane’s husband David Wilson farms the land now, growing corn, soybeans and cotton. The remains of this year’s cotton are still evident in the fields as you drive down the lane to the home.
The home will be open, along with other stops on this year’s Tour of Christmas Classics, from noon-6 p.m. Dec. 3 and 1-5 p.m. Dec. 4.
Other locations are:
• The Pill House, Millbridge. This recently restored tiny house was built in 1883 by Dr. Elisha Mitchell Summerell, who used it as a place to see patients and dispense medication. The gallery/museum will be stocked with homemade wooden spoons, jewelry, soap and birdhouses, all made by owner Ted Deal, metalwork by Ted’s brother Jerry and stained glass ornaments by Drema Clemmons. Also for sale will be the Deals’ homemade molasses.
• Back Creek Presbyterian Church, Mt. Ulla. Traditional music will be played on the church’s old pump organ, and antique kerosene lanterns will illuminate the sanctuary.
• Thyatira Presbyterian Church, Millbridge. During their stop at the oldest Presbyterian church in the area, tour-goers will get to hear the Salisbury Symphony’s Children’s String Ensemble and examine the beautiful Chrismon ornaments handmade by women of the church, which adorn the large tree.
• Kerr Mill, Millbridge. This is the oldest brick grist mill in the state, built in 1823. Weaver Kenneth Webb will be on hand, working on a hand loom.
• The Rankin-Sherrill House, Mt. Ulla. Fresh cookies straight from the oven will be offered here, and teenager Emily Walls will be spinning angora from her own rabbits.
• Setzer School, Salisbury. A schoolmarm of this one-room school will regale visitors with stories of Father Christmas and will talk about how local schoolchildren have experienced Christmas since 1847.
• Across the street, Horizons Unlimited will have 14 Christmas trees on display, each decorated in a style depicting a different region of the United States. At this site, there will be baked goods prepared and sold by the guild’s best bakers.
• The Andrew Murphy House, Salisbury This West Square home will be decorated with an abundance of Southern natural greenery, including boxwood, holly, nandina, magnolia leaves and pine cones. Visitors will see a wonderful collection of antique toys and dolls under the Christmas tree.
Each location will offer seasonal snacks and beverages, music, entertainment, craftspeople at work and/or “tour favors.”
Several door prizes will be distributed, with no additional purchase required.
Tickets for Salisbury Symphony Guild’s Tour of Southern Classics are $15 per person, and can be reserved at the Visitors’ Bureau (704-638-3100) or purchased online at They also will be available day of tour at all tour homes and Setzer school locations only.
Funds raised go to the symphony’s music education programs.