Local historian, gardener Francis Inglis dies at age 90

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Frances Inglis accepts good wishes from Adrian Wood, at right, and Missie Harrell, left, at a recepton marking the renaming of the historic Cupola House Garden in her honor following a special ceremony in 2013.

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Staff Writer

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Friday evening, I interviewed Frances Inglis on her porch with her daughter Susan along with former county commissioner John Mitchener, who helped to arrange the meeting.

My intent was to learn more about the Lady of Water Street as well as some of the history of Edenton and Chowan County so that I could write a tribute to her life. I can still see Inglis’ intent gaze as she answered my questions while the warm breeze blew from Edenton Bay onto her porch at Homestead, circa 1773.

I was shocked to hear of Inglis’ passing Monday morning at her home. Candidly, I’m not sure how to write her story, so bear with me as I continue to process the news and turn it into prose.

Based on the best information available before our Tuesday press deadline, Inglis’ funeral is scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

From my own recollections of Inglis as well as Friday’s interview, I can say with certainty that she was a kind soul who had a strong knowledge of local people and places. Many people held her in awe as they spoke with her because she had a formidable grasp of time and place; qualities that become more rare as people choose Oz over Kansas. Our State magazine even did a feature on her a few years back about her presence and place within the town’s fabric.

Inglis was born in March 17, 1929, in Norfolk, Virginia, and though she visited family living in Edenton, she and husband Ross settled in town many decades ago and raised a family.

During our conversation, Inglis relayed how her family’s heritage is connected to the Wood, Collins and Skinner families, which trace their lineage back to the days long ago when there was a British flag flying over the colonies. The Wood family owned multiple plantations, while the Collins family owned Somerset Place in Washington County. The Skinners lived at Montpelier on the Albemarle Sound, three miles outside Edenton.

During the 11 o’clock Mass, Inglis and her daughter often sat in the front pews up toward the front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, where her grandfather Robert Drane served as a rector between 1876 and 1932. Her father was a priest too.

“Our parish in good shape and I’m very grateful that Malone (Gilliam) is the priest,” Inglis said.

Asked as to why Inglis prefers the 11 o’clock service to the 8 a.m. Mass, she said, “I like the fulsomeness of the music.”

Since religious roots run deep within Inglis’ family, our conversation turned to the ministry. Though Inglis said she considered a career path involving a religious education, that was not to be.

“I loved the academics, but I just did not feel comfortable going ahead with that plan right then,” she said.

And then there were the times — women were not allowed to be ordained as Episcopal priests until the late 1970s.

“Mama might have become an Episcopal minister if they were ordaining women then, but that wasn’t an option,” Susan Inglis said.

After graduating UNC Chapel Hill in 1952 with a degree in English literature, Inglis took some time off and traveled Europe, where she would meet her husband Ross. She shared a story about how they met on a train in Spain in 1953.

“We were both going to Seville in the south of Spain for Holy Week when I met Ross,” she said. “No, it was not love at first sight, but we got along right from the beginning. We able to talk and enjoyed each other’s company.”

Inglis described her husband as “very handsome, blonde, but shorter than me.” The couple was married 52 years and raised three children: Susan, Robert and Frederick.

Mitchener recalled that his father John and Ross talked often when the Mitchener family owned a drug store on South Broad Street. He recalled Ross’ Scottish heritage and how his talents as a mechanical engineer led to a prosperous and successful business career.

“Ross was influential in many ways — as an outsider, he was able to cross bridges and able to bring folks into conversation a bit quicker than someone who is not similarly situated,” he said.

According to Ross’ obituary published in 2006 within the Daily Advance.

“Mr. Inglis had lived in Edenton since 1956 and was an articulate admirer of this country but remained a British Subject until December 1999, when he became an American citizen. He was educated at St. Alban’s College in Buenos Aires and at Southall College in London. The retired president of Edenton Construction Company Inc., he had simultaneously been associated first with M.G. Brown Company as vice president and then with Edenton Cotton Mill as secretary. Among his many and wide-ranging interests was architectural preservation. His company restored perhaps two dozen important early buildings in the area. Mr. Inglis had a pivotal and ongoing interest in the restoration of the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse.”

As to the 1767 Courthouse, Inglis shared a story about a conversation Ross had with someone from the state about the property’s true owner.

“The man said to him, ‘What makes you think Chowan County owns the courthouse?’” she said. “Turns out, that courthouse was built by the British before the Revolution when North Carolina was still a colony. After the Revolution, the property went to the state — the land that the British had owned — so it was not county property.”

Civil rights

Edenton was at the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, so much so that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the town in December 1962, where he spoke at the Armory on North Broad Street.

King was a close associate of Golden Frinks, whose home on Peterson Street is poised to become a museum.

Frinks was the guiding voice behind the Edenton Movement, a series of protests and pickets throughout the early 1960s to desegregate public locations in town. Frinks led the town’s young activists to participate in his desegregation effort and made them the main participants of the movement. Their efforts helped successfully desegregate several public locations in Edenton including the courthouse, library and the historically white John A. Holmes High School. Nationally, the Edenton Movement put the small town on the civil rights’ radar.

“I knew Golden Frinks a little, but my husband knew him much better,” Inglis said. “He worked for my husband in Edenton in construction, a carpenter. Frinks achieved a lot with civil rights. His wife, Ruth, was a teacher. He was colorful.”

Mitchener and Inglis recalled how divided times were then in town. His father was not only mayor, but a business owner who had to navigate a way to straddle the racial divide. He recalled how his father, before welcoming King to town, had to explain to folks that he was not mayor of just one side of town, but he served everyone.

Inglis was among the most well-known ladies in town with a prominent husband and genealogy that can trace itself to a time when plantations dominated the landscape. As such, no can deny what Mitchener confirmed — that it was brave thing attending King’s speech that Mitchener estimated had more than 500 people present.Fishermen say waterway moves slowly; effluent will just sit, make brackish water

“Frances already had her ecumenical wings, if I can coin a phrase, at that moment in time. The point being that she was able to move between different portions of society in a way that few people could,” he said.

Frances added, “I remember standing in the back of the auditorium when he spoke. He talked about the importance of black people getting equal treatment.”

Inglis explained her perspective about why she attended the speech.

“I was interested. I had lived in Canada for awhile and had a little bit different perspective. My husband was British, so he certainly had a different perspective,” she said. “My family tradition is to be more open to all people, and I was full of curiosity. I thought it was good that he came. I wanted to be there to hear him.”

From my perspective, I’ve read more than a few timeworn pages from the Chowan Herald from the late 1960s as to the battles and wars waged over integration. Having this as a mindset, questions arose as to how Chowan County has changed when listening to Mitchener and Inglis talk about the connections between various groups — how is society different?

Inglis noted that while the social strata exists then as now, there has been some progress.

“They are connected differently because then, the connection between white people and black people was who worked for you, but now that relationship is different because of school integration and more fairness awareness,” said Inglis, a member of the Racial Reconciliation group whose meeting she attended this past Thursday.

Other topics

Inglis kept abreast of local affairs as she was an ardent supporter of renewable energy. She attended several county commission meetings and was quick to share her opinions on the matter.

“We need to support alternative energy sources,” Inglis said during a speech in May 2017 as the county commission deliberated a 120-day moratorium on solar farms.

Inglis was known for her gardening. Indeed, the garden at the Cupola House bears her name. She was an active founder of the Wednesday Weeders, a group dedicated to making that those gardens bloom. The gardens are designed in a Colonial style and contain heritage plants that would have grown in an 18th century garden. The Weeders lovingly tend to the three gardens — the Orchard, the Pleasure Garden and the Herb Garden — throughout the year.

And as I passed her home often en route to my family’s home on nearby Court Street, I’d see Inglis gardening in the large yard behind her house.

Friday, I asked her about the hundreds of small white flowers in the grass within the front and side yard facing Colonial Drive that appear between late Feburary and April each year. Some of these flowers have even migrated to the Courthouse Green. Inglis shared a story about these flowers that are called Ipheion or perhaps more commonly, spring starflower.

Inglis said long ago, perhaps the 1880s, her grandmother was given six bulbs. She planted them in the yard — the rest, as they say, is history.

As to history, I asked about that gigantic tree that was cut down in 2018 in her front yard. She said that after the tree’s rings were counted, it was determined to be at least 127 years old. Inglis said she was glad that it was cut down before hurricane season.

Mention of hurricanes brought to mind the question about living in a house by the bay. She said most times, the water doesn’t really go much beyond, well, Water Street. However, Inglis said in September 2003, when Hurricane Isabel invaded Edenton, a 7-foot storm surge pushed the water into the front yard and up to the front step at Homestead. Hurricanes aside, the view of the bay while sitting in a rocking chair on the home’s porch is amazing.

“This is fabulous,” she said. “I love it — it’s beautiful!”

And then there is Inglis’ cooking, recipes of which appear in a church cookbook that is stored on the shelves at Shepard-Pruden Library.

When asked about cooking, Inglis said, “I had a hungry husband. He was ready for supper, so I had to learn to cook. I didn’t know how to cook when I first got married.”

My memories of Inglis’ recipe within that cookbook are faint, but it had something to do with herring, so I asked her about her favorite dish. That too came with a story.

“In the springtime, fresh herring roe is just so joyous,” she said. “The fish is salted and smoked is just the greatest delicacy.”

As to the story, Inglis explained that many years ago, herring were commonly found in the waters around Chowan County. Edenton was well-known for harvesting tons of herring each year, that was until the tiny fish was depleted from overfishing. These days, herring is imported rather than caught locally.

Herring aside, Inglis’ favorite food is corn on the cob.

“Corn on the cob — that is your favorite food,” Susan Inglis said. “We came in hungry from the Racial Reconciliation group’s meeting (Thursday). All mama needed was some corn on the cob.”

Last thoughts

Though it was hard to wrap up the interview with Inglis on that porch overlooking the bay, time was growing short.

When asked about how her longevity, Inglis said, “Secret to a long life? I think it’s in the genes.”

Mitchener and I asked a question about what folks should know about Edenton that they may not already know.

For a fleeting moment, I saw Inglis’ eyes flicker and a wry smile appear cross her lips as she prepared to answer this very broad-based question that Mitchener and I had asked.

Her answer brought me a smile as she pondered how to answer with her trademark civility and grace.

“How do I know what they know and what they don’t know?” she said.

Exactly, I thought — she then continued by saying, “I would like them to know that it is a fine town that has fine architecture that represents a number of different periods.”

As to Edenton changing during the past several decades, “Schools have been integrated and so many people have moved to Edenton from other parts — people retiring here. That’s a big thing. I think they make a wonderful contribution not only to the economy, but to the life of the town today.”