Pilgrimage offers a 'little bit of heaven'
Virginia Wood's Greenfield among 17 homes on tour
By MILES LAYTON
Wednesday, April 17, 2019
EDENTON — About two years ago after Pilgrimage, Virginia Wood visited the offices of the Chowan Herald to welcome a new editor and perhaps drop off some cookies.
Wood noted that her home, Greenfield, was on the tour and invited me anytime to visit. Who can deny this lady, an exemplar of Southern charm and hospitality.
This year's Pilgrimage offered an opportunity to see her stately manor home nestled deep within the woods of Chowan County, between the Yeopim River and Albemarle Sound. Thousands of folks came to Chowan County on Friday and Saturday to explore similar homes that are steeped in history. During the last Pilgrimage, in 2017, my daughter Samantha and I explored Sambo and Gray Dixon's home Beverly Hall – there's old bank vault inside and a peacock or two on the grounds.
Saturday, my wife Nicole and I fulfilled a promise made to Wood to visit, so we joined about 200 visitors who explored the historic mansion that has been in her family for 10 generations.
“I think that people who come here are seeing a little bit of heaven. I really do believe that,” Wood said.
Though I've seen pictures of Greenfield, a plantation house built in 1752, nothing quite compares to the experience of exploring the home in person. A vast expanse of land around the place offers a sense not only of privacy, but it beckons back to a time when land had more value than it does today because people were closer to the earth.
It's hard to describe, but as one travels up the driveway toward the two-story house, moods of permanence, quiet reflection and history seamlessly intermingle like the different colored flowers planted around the estate. There's also that sense of “home” that warms the heart and can best be compared to returning to family during the holidays.
Upon arrival, we made our way up the wooden steps to the expansive front porch that offers an expansive view of the estate.
Debbie Boyle and Carlette Pruden with the Edenton Woman’s Club, which hosts Pilgrimage, offered a history primer as to Greenfield's stature in Chowan County.
The Wood family owned many plantations bordering the Albemarle Sound so as to get the fishing rights needed to harvest herring. Patriarch Edward Wood had that vision.
Once inside Greenfield, Jennifer Wood told guests about the hand painted mural that has been on the walls since 1937. Wood is married to Benbury Jr., son of Virginia and Thomas Benbury Haughton Wood Sr. The mural depicts the family, as well as familiar places about town such as the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, St. Paul's Episcopal Church and Hayes Plantation.
“It was intended to be a slice of life and a slice of Edenton,” she said.
An image of Tommy Wood Sr. as a boy is painted on the mural with his family,
“The only person still living the mural is Tommy – hanging out right there,” Jennifer Wood said pointing to a set of white lines resembling a baby.
Other takeaways as you walk through the home, there is a stuffed pheasant that gets hauled out for festive occasions. And like my wife, Virginia likes to drink Dr. Pepper – small bottles of the soda were on a kitchen shelf. There's a bowl with three goldfish on the dining room table, and Irish Wake Table. And Virginia's little dog Twinkles walked here and there.
Another history teller, Clara King, who was visiting from Wilmington, was in the kitchen talking about how everybody is connected.
“There are connections everywhere you turn in northeastern North Carolina – you can not do better,” she said.
Trust me when I say, the genealogy was running pretty thick in a room filled with Woods and their relations – it's a Southern thing to link X to Y on the family tree. As an example, King noted how Jane Iredell Wright's uncle, Henry MacMillan, was the gentleman, who along with his wife Helen, painted the murals. And wouldn't you know that Iredell Wright was in the kitchen at that very moment in time when my wife and I were walking through.
“I think you are kin to my children,” Virginia Wood said to Iredell Wright.
Around every corner, there is a story to tell about Greenfield. Virginia noted that the famous architect William Nichols put the transoms over the doors. Of course the big job Nichols did was the work at Hayes Plantation – also a Wood home.
“While Nichols was here, he did something for everyone,” Virginia Wood said. “He lived in this house and married an Edenton girl (Sarah Simons).”
While on the topic of marriage, Virginia shared a quick tidbit about her husband of 45 years, Thomas Benbury Haughton Wood Sr., who died nearly 12 years ago. He was born and raised at Greenfield, but when they got married, they lived in a house by Westover General Store – that's the shop that sells the good sandwiches on West Queen Street. Later Wood talked about how she and her husband renovated now familiar manor homes in Chowan County.
Back to Greenfield, as Virginia talked about the original rooms in the house, she weaved that history with this or that photo or painting. Yes, two black and white photographs of Abraham Lincoln hang on the wall which conjures up many questions. One portrait is of young Lincoln after his “House Divided” speech. The second photo shows Lincoln a bit more worn and weary during the latter part of his presidency.
“People think – wow, you've got Abraham Lincoln on the wall,” she said. “I happen to like him. I think he was one of the bravest presidents we ever had.”
History weaves its tapestry through Greenfield as Virginia told the tale of a painting of a real life ship – Frank P. Barlow – that was built by Edenton shipbuilders in 1783 at Minzie's Creek in Perquimans County.
“It really ought to be in a museum somewhere,” she said of the painting. “Everything has a story.”
Above the mantle in the den, there is a portrait of her late husband. Wood talked about how the portrait is so lifelike that after he died in 2007, the family dog was convinced that it was really him.
Seeing the portrait, Wood told the story about how her husband's aunt, Matilda Haughton, married a young Elizabeth City lawyer named John C. B. Ehringhaus, who served as governor of the Tarheel State during the 1930s.
“My father practiced law with him before he went to Raleigh,” she said. “Edenton is full of stories like that.”
After learning more about the Wood family, portraits, murals, some Prohibition era barrels, Virginia walked with me and my wife into her front yard. As Wood talked about her love of Greenfield, she made a bouquet from red camellias and purple flowers planted in her yard. Everyone took note of the people who were visiting her home during Pilgrimage – estimated to be more than 200 souls. Having participated in Pilgrimage in years past, Wood offered this observation.
“I think this year's Pilgrimage was successful. People love Edenton when they come. They love it and respect it. They love it when everybody speaks to them, and are so gracious when they are in these houses.”