Today, transportation is something that we take for granted. Planes, trains, and especially cars make it easy for us to travel almost anywhere.
However, travel has not always been quite so simple. Travel used to be done by riding horses, riding a carriage, or walking. Here, at the Museum of the Albemarle we have currently on display in the lobby a phaeton carriage that dates back to the 1820s. The phaeton carriage also has a way of taking visitors back in time to what life and travel would have been like in the 19th century.
The phaeton carriage is two-seated, with a black leather folding top, a wooden body, and spokes that are Brewster green with red stripes. The seats are covered in green wool with ophrey bands.
The carriage appears to be very high off the ground and visitors to the museum often speculate how people would climb into the carriage and why did the carriage need to be so high off the ground. One answer that I have heard is that porches were built higher back in the 19th century and the trick was getting the carriage close enough to the porch without hitting it. Carriages were built high off the ground so that mud from the roads would not splash up on the carriage riders.
The phaeton carriage comes to us from Chowan County. The carriage is thought to have belonged to Samuel Johnston, the governor of North Carolina from 1787-1789. Upon Gov. Johnston’s death, his son James Cathcart Johnston inherited all his belongings, including the phaeton carriage currently on display at the museum and the large plantation house, Hayes Plantation.
Before the Civil War, Hayes Plantation, located in Edenton, was home to one of the largest collections of books in North Carolina. James C. Johnston never married; instead he focused on increasing his wealth.
During the Antebellum period, Johnston accumulated thousands of acres of land. Johnston was surprisingly a Unionist, but he owned hundreds of slaves. At the outbreak of the Civil War, Johnston believed in sending slaves back to Africa, instead of freeing them on American soil.
On his death in May 1865, Johnston left Hayes Plantation and all it encompassed to a business associate, Edward Wood, whose descendants still own the property today. The phaeton carriage is still owned by the Edward Wood family.
The phaeton carriage, belonging to the Johnston’s was fully restored in 1973 by the North Carolina Museum of History Preservation Lab and the Windsor Coach and Carriage Company located in Massachusetts.
The phaeton is part of the exhibit here at the Museum of the Albemarle entitled “Under Both Flags: the Civil War in the Albemarle.” The exhibit commemorates the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.
Displays featured in this exhibit focus on how the Albemarle region was divided under both Union and Confederate flags. The exhibit will run until February 2015.