Carter Mansion at night
For many years, I thought that Carter Mansion was a place that should have had more public attention. Understandably, with personnel so limited and responsibilities great, it had only been opened by appointment , limitedly during the summer months and during events. The rangers gave me permission to open the house for weekly tours since I’ve been retired and even though it’s open on Tuesdays, it’s been amazing how many people have come through.
Chad had asked me to write a transcript of my tour for his docent notebook and gave me permission to publish it here. I hope you find this venerable house as interesting as I have.
The John and Landon Carter Mansion was the single most imposing structure in the frontier during the Revolutionary War period in what was then North Carolina. The known world at that time ended in Chilhowie, VA, and the rest was no man’s land similar to what we think of the Wild West a century later. It is the oldest frame house in Tennessee, one whose interior is 90 % original and is the first with glass, most of which has survived. Construction of the house was started by John Carter sometime between 1775 and finished in 1781 and certainly reflects his position in the community at the time. His son, Landon, lived with his parents during that time, and after his father died of smallpox on the road to New Bern with a box of Tory deeds, Landon inherited it, raising his six children with his wife, Elizabeth MacLin, until his untimely death at age 40 (Elizabethton was named in her honor). During his most important years, John Carter was the chairman of the Watauga Association, justice of the peace, a land surveyor, Colonel and head of the Home militia, involved with the largest land purchase this country has ever seen, the Transylvania Purchase, and was a member of the No. Carolina Assembly among other things. At his death, it’s estimated that he was worth about $9 million, our money. John Carter originally came from northern Virginia. He may have been the grandson , possibly of an illegitimate son, of Robert “King “ Carter , one of the wealthiest of the old gentry families of the Tide Water who owned almost 300,000 acres in Northern Virginia. From the looks of the house, it is feasible that John was familiar and comfortable with gentry living and very well capitalized. If you are in Colonial Williamsburg, you will see Robert “King” Carter’s house right next to the governor’s palace. The center section of the house bears a striking resemblance to the mansion his son built and Landon (a family name) lived in. John and a partner, William Parker came to the frontier and set up a trading post in what is now Carter’s Valley in Hawkins County. He gained the trust of the Cherokee but was caught in the middle of the conflict between them and the Creek. The trading post was burned, William Parker went back to Virginia, but John traveled deeper into the frontier, acquiring 640 acres from the Cherokee in the Watauga Old Fields, on the banks of the Watauga and eventually built the house. Landon, because of his service as an assemblyman in New Bern, Speaker of the House and Secretary of State in the then state of Franklin, Captain and Militia fighter who fought at Kings Mountain among many other things, expanded the original holding to 10,000 acres, making it a true working plantation. Their next door neighbors were the Lincolns and we all know who was a descendant of this family.
Frame: The house is roughly 3000 square feet on a limestone foundation in an era where most people were living in less than 500 sq. feet cabins with packed clay floors. The style is a Pennsylvania Saltbox, six rooms on two floors with a garret and root cellar. It would be a familiar style in the Tidewater region and one John Carter was comfortable with. There is a fire place in the root cellar (possibly used to store black powder for the militia. Keeping the powder dry, the fire may have been lit on one side and the powder may have been on the other. I bet the Mrs. Carters spent some sleepless nights when the fire was lit down there). The fireplace in the great room is stacked on top of that. There is a fireplace in the parlor and the office and one stacked on those for the master bedroom upstairs. I wonder if heating all this stone could have been what we call a heat pump now. The clapboard siding, though not original, was faithfully recreated based on surviving original siding near the limestone chimneys. There was a wing build on in the middle of the 1800’s but was taken down when the state acquired the property in the 70’s because it wasn’t safe and was not a part of the original design. The question has been asked how the house managed to survive and an elderly lady who was familiar with the house when she visited the last owners told me that most of the walls were covered up and the rooms were used for storage more than living. She said she even saw the upstairs used for hanging meat.
As you walk to the front door and through, think about the settlers coming up the steps, hats in hand, and how they must have felt as they looked at such grandeur. The furniture you will see was all donated by David Davis who, upon his death, generously bequeathed the fine 18th century antiques to the Historical Site. While they are not part of the original inventory of this particular house, they would most definitely be found in fine 18th century homes.
Great Room: the Great room and parlor differs from most Penn style homes in that it boasts 9 ft. ceilings. This is a fortified house; the walls below the chair rails are full of “noggins”, the bricks made on site that create the hearths in the rooms. I don’t know why they are called Noggins but if there was trouble, one could duck one’s Noggin below the chair rails and I guarantee you, your head wouldn’t get shot off. This was a public room by day and a family room and a place for dinners, parties and relaxation by night. It boasts of beautiful and probably re-purposed floor to ceiling paneling from an older home. The detailing of the dental carving on the crown moldings, the curved mantel pediment on fluted pilasters are all hand carved. Closet space is then what it is now and there is a little storage closet under the key hole steps. Furnishings of note include the linen chest dated to 1743, the period grandfather clock, the 18th century serving butler and the Imari china in the corner cupboard. That was a very popular trade item in the 18th century and china similar to this as well as the glass was probably brought up through the waterways from Charleston. The portrait copy of Landon Carter, done in his life time, hangs on the wall… a face of strength and character. The door at the rear of the room would admit servants or slaves who would bring food from the exterior kitchen common during that time. The frames of the doors boast bolection moldings. What that means is that they don’t fit good …. They float around the door openings which were cut to fit the moldings and there are decorative keystones to hide the levels and seams.
Parlor: The parlor is so cheerful. With two large windows sitting close to each other, one can see even on a dull day that one doesn’t need a lot of artificial light. By day when Carter was doing business, one can imagine that there would be men waiting here being served liquid refreshments while waiting entrance to the land office. When the men were gone, one can imagine Mrs. Carter would be entertaining family and friends in this parlor being served with the pieces stored in her cupboard. The coloration of this room is totally original though darkened over 200 + years and very graceful. The features of note are reverse key design over the hearth and the corner hanging cupboard. The carved reverse key is a common decorative feature of homes of the late 1600’s, probably repurposed from an earlier home and the paneling and molding mirrors the great room, again with the beautiful fluted keystones over the doorways.
Land office: John Carter was a surveyor by trade, a job he shared with the likes of George Washington and from his office, he could have surveyed the servant’s quarters where the garden is, the path to the stone quay (which I understand is under water now) where goods and people would be coming and going. It was a busy place indeed. The only piece of furniture that came with the house is in this room, a chair with hand-carved wheel design in the back piece. There is a deeds chest similar to what John Carter possibly had and the tools of his trade drape over. The most notable feature in this room is one of two rare over mantel paintings depicting a rural scene. It’s primitive, ala Grandma Moses but in wonderful condition thanks to the fact that it was protected by paint for years. Pay attention to the tromp l’oeil framing around the scene because whoever painted this, did the decorative painting upstairs as well. The framework is repeated on the paneling throughout the second floor, giving it a very elegant appearance.
Steps: the steps graduated in steepness so one has to be careful but they take up very little space in the house. There’s a wide turn and as one approaches the second floor, graceful arched carved facings that are repeated to the steps to the garret. Though the colors don’t announce it, one can see this is the feminine level of the home.
The steps open to a very comfortable open hall with wonderful acoustics. One can imagine Mrs. Carter catching a lovely cross breeze, spinning or sewing using natural light during the day while listening to all the doings on the ground floor. The detailing here in the painted wainscot reflecting the tromp l’oile framing around the painting downstairs hides the seams of the smooth, flat pine paneling. The width of the pine boards leads me to think that these are from virgin forests. We don’t see that kind of fine grained pine now at all. The wood is sponged to make it look marbled and this is very clear in the master bedroom where the interior wall has not been as exposed to light as the hall has been. There’s a little closet under the steps leading to the 3rd floor garret. One would imagine that the third floor, which has no fireplace and just small windows on the end would be used for storage and possibly as sleeping quarters for the children when honored guests would come. The absence of a handrail to such a place is common in 18th century homes.
Children’s room: Six children lived in this home at the end of the 18th century. Guests like Andre Michaux, the noted French botanist, and Governor John Sevier, probably slept in this room while visiting the area. The doorways are 6’2” high, giving Landon a one inch clearance so he wouldn’t bump his head. To give you a sense of scale, the bed is full size and it’s conceivable that there would have been a trundle so six children could sleep nose to toes comfortably. There is no fireplace in this room; would that have been because Carter was farsighted enough to think of kids near an open fire and kids being kids in an all wood house? Hard to tell. The bedrooms would have had chamber pots for night use as the necessary was out back. The notable features in this room are the small carved chest and the period linens chest. The chest is the oldest piece in the house, dating from the 17th century and the linens storage chest is two piece affair with locks for securing valuables.
Master bedroom: The well-lit master bedroom takes up half of the upstairs and offers the luxury of space that no other house in the region afforded. It’s bigger than most peoples’ cabins of the era. This is the center of female life and one can almost see Mrs. Carter planning her day here and spinning on the walking wheel that fits comfortably in the room. Delicate Chippendale chairs grace the room and it is possible that two beds could have been in this room, one for the Carters and the other for guests. The need for privacy and space was different in the 18th century than it is today. The focal point of the room is the framed over mantel painting, featuring a hunting scene with hounds chasing a stag. It’s darker than the one downstairs because it was exposed over time, but I think a Scotsman or someone familiar with hunting in Scotland painted the house and the paintings. If you look closely at the stag in the painting, you’ll see it’s a red tailed deer. Red tailed deer do not exist in North America but are abundant in Scotland. If you look at the walls, you can see clearly the decorative details like the marbling and the faux framing below the chair rails.
This room was a scene of drama, not during the Revolutionary War period but during the Civil war. Rev. William Blount Carter, a grandson of Landon Carter and a Presbyterian minister, lived in this house with his wife, Ellen. He, like his brothers and many people in Carter County were virulent Union sympathizers who actually wanted to secede from the Confederacy and he came up with a plan to burn nine important bridges on the East Tennessee and Georgia (ET&G) and East Tennessee and Virginia (ET&V) railroads that where vital to troop movement and logistics from Virginia through the Deep South. The plan was sanctioned by Lincoln himself. For various reasons only half of the bridges were blown up on a single night, November 8, 1862. Confederate General Zollicrofter put the area under martial law, captured and killed several of the conspirators and the Illustrious 24 from the area was on the run. A local man, Capt. Dan Ellis, was commissioned to get these men to safety over the mountains to Kentucky and he made his way to this very room. The rebels were right on his tail and Mrs. Ellen Carter, thinking quickly, put him in her bed, covered him up and laid there. When the soldiers came up the stairs looking, they found Mrs. Carter who said she was gravely ill. When they asked her whether she had seen Dan Ellis, she is reported to have said that “Dan Ellis’s feet are nowhere touching the floors of this plantation. “ Technically this was true and you can almost smell the fear in the room. When the soldiers left, she sent Capt. Ellis on his way where he and the men reached the safety of Kentucky and Generals Sherman and Thomas. On the wall between the windows you’ll find the signatures of children written on the wall. Some say that people wrote on the wall to show possession in the event they had to make a quick exit and deeds were destroyed.
Overall, this premier home is a mini masterpiece. While it’s not of the level of places like Mount Vernon or Monticello, it’s a beautiful example of early Tidewater architecture transplanted with gem-like precision to the wilderness. Compared to other homesteads, it is over the top in elegance and details. It was a large working farm with a big barn where the parking lot is, feeding sheds and coops, a blacksmith shop, wool, flax and beef processing areas, owned by the single most prominent and enduring family in the mountains of Tennessee.