Family's treasure discovered in cigar box

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J. Dawson Tyler of Edenton's Down East Preservation Construction and Design talks about what makes the historic preservation of old homes like the McNeider House so special.

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By Miles Layton

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series detailing letters discovered recently in the attic of a nearly 200-year-old home on East Church Street.

A few weeks back, J. Dawson Tyler was busy working to restore the McNeider House when he discovered an old cigar box filled with letters in the attic.

Dawson, an ardent preservationist, leads Edenton's Down East Preservation Construction and Design LLC – a company that has restored many of the area's historic homes.

The letters Tyler found were written between Nellie Bond and John Small way back in the day – 1920s – an era when the world made a little more sense. The war to end all wars was a fading memory, Republican Calvin Coolidge was president and Edenton was...well... a different place when Bond and Small wrote letters to each other during their courtship.

The couple would go onto marry, settle down in the home and raise a family that would produce a granddaughter – Rochelle Small-Toney, who serves as city manager for Rocky Mount. More about Small-Toney's thoughts will appear in the next issue.

Anyway, Tyler's company is busy restoring this home, cira 1819.

“There's a lot there – a lot of the original molding, doors – all of the stuff that house nerds like myself love,” he said. “I enjoy – what I do is a very tactile thing. The reward is taking something that was falling down and turning it into something that was beautiful is hugely rewarding to me. The main reason I do it is that I've always loved history. To me, they just don't build places like this anymore; the beauty of it with all the interesting little nooks – it is important to maintain. “

As to the letters, Tyler read only a few to determine what he had, but based on what he saw, it will be a treasure trove of memories for the family. Tyler said he gave the letters to Small-Toney who told him she would share them with the family during a reunion planned for this summer.

“Nellie and John talked about day to day things – they were dating at the time, so it was kind of playful, missing you – those sort of things,” Tyler said. “It was kind of interesting to see what was going on in North Carolina back in the 1920s. It's kind of fun to read about life from a firsthand perspective back then.”

A quick tour of the home reveals the care workers have bestowed on the property to transform it from a fading building to showplace in a neighborhood enjoying a renaissance of restoration.

“The key to these old houses is to maintain everything that you can, but you also got to make them so that they are livable,” Tyler said. “Nobody wants a kitchen that is 10-feet by 10-feet where you can't get to the dining room. We make a couple alterations, but without changing the character of the home. We try to be as faithful as we can to what was here.”

In a nutshell, that’s what Edenton/Chowan County is all about.