When people drive into Edenton for the first time, the first place they go to is usually the Barker House.
This is just what my wife Marsha and I did about four and a half years ago. For years we had been making the beach vacation pilgrimage from Pittsburgh to OBX every July or August. On our way back to the Burgh in the summer of 2016, we turned left off the usual route up to Moyock (and thence to the madness of I-95) and continued instead on US 158.
I told Marsha I had a surprise in mind. At the beach she had just read a Forbes article on “the prettiest town in the South,” and had spent a lot of beach time gazing at the beautiful shots of a picturesque lighthouse, a domed great house framed by a gracious garden, and most poignantly, a gracious two-tiered house-wide porch fronted by the glimmering mirror of Edenton Bay.
Just about an hour later, we pulled up to the back door of the Barker House. When the home was rolled down the street from its original location in 1952, it was turned 180 degrees to point the glorious front porch to the water, making the back door the main entrance for visitors. As we all know, “back door guests are the best”. No one who passes through these doors is meant to be a stranger.
This is precisely the sense that Marsha and I felt when we passed through that back entrance and entered Edenton’s Living Room. I began to reach for my wallet, expecting that there was sure to be some admission fee for such a pretty place.
But no. It was all grace. We were met by Sally Francis Kehayes, whose cheer about the town was utterly infectious. Hearing that we were Eastern Orthodox, she phoned John Morehead, who came right over. After a sterling conversation with the two of them in that Living Room, there was no way we could not move to Edenton (which we did, about a year and a half later).
Of course, our gracious welcome at the Barker House is the same story of visitors from all over the country (and beyond). And many of those visitors have gone from “visitor” to “resident” — mainly because of the quality of this welcome.
“Welcome,” in the Barker House style, is graciousness. It’s openness and acceptance. It’s a feeling of “peace of place”: a curated blend of a gracious old house situated by the bay: Georgian, Greek Revival and Federal themes on the inside, and outside, an ancient cypress standing in mystic solitude. If you look out from the porch on a foggy morning, there is elfin magic in the silver sheen.
But that welcome, essentially, starts with the joy and grace of the persons who work there. They are the ones who tell the stories of family and town, and invite stories from new arrivals. The staff and volunteer docents make the history and sights of Edenton come alive. There’s been many a time on sunny mornings that one can hear, in the Living Room of Edenton, the inestimable narrations of Dr. Ben Speller and Madison Phillips, sharing with travelers the treasury of reminiscence, of real lives lived in the rooms of this house, these streets, our town.
Joy Harvill, executive director at the Edenton Historical Commission / Penelope Barker Welcome Center, is quick to point out that these people are the heart of the Barker House. They are the ones who enthusiastically suggest places to visit, like the Cupola House, the 1767 Chowan County Courthouse, the Historic Edenton State Historic Site, and the 1886 Roanoke River Lighthouse. And places to take in lunch or dinner, or a glass of pinot or a microbrew longneck on Malcolm’s terrace. They encourage a pleasant stroll up and down Broad Street and throughout the town, to visit the Chowan Arts Council, the picturesque shops, the historic homes, the Farmers Market, the beautiful churches. If the weather’s right, a cruise around the bay with Captain Mark on the Liber-Tea. And, of course, they heartily recommend the not-to-be-missed Edenton Trolley.
Recently, this infectious sense of falling in love happened for Amy Strecker and her wife, Emmy Lou Coleman. They were walking down King Street on a gorgeous fall day when they recognized and struck up a conversation with Dr. Adrian Wood about her son’s love for the historic trolley. The charm of this story, along with the warm welcome at the Barker House, made them fall head over heels for Edenton.
Soon after, in a meeting at work, Strecker told her colleague, Tammy Thurman, Piedmont Community Relations Manager for Eastern North Carolina, about Edenton and her experience with the Edenton Historical Commission. Tammy was looking for the right organization to nominate for a $50,000 grant from Piedmont Natural Gas/Duke Energy. After her conversation with Strecker, she knew she had found the right candidate.
The Historical Commission has many ongoing concerns: serving as the fiscal agent in the efforts to restore Kadesh A.M.E. Zion Church, maintaining and overseeing the research at the oldest house in North Carolina, and maintaining the Old Jail. But it’s safe to say that of these programs, the Barker House is the main attractor. The grant would be a godsend after a devastating year.
That request became a reality. In this hard season of the coronavirus pandemic, this reality has become an outright miracle on the order of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This is especially so in light of the fact that so much hardship has been sustained by the Edenton community — businesses, institutions, and our hospitality enterprises. The hard year has forced everyone to take heroic, difficult steps to accommodate hard realities. Because of pandemic health measures, the Barker House’s annual Candlelight Tour, for instance, had to take the form of a single showcase house and a virtual tour.
The grant will go a long way toward helping the preservation program of the Edenton Historical Commission “make it” through the fiscal year. This program is central and essential to our community, our commerce and culture. We Edentonians and Chowanians depend on the welcome that is precisely the business of the Barker House.
If you love the town and live hereabouts, then it would be a good idea to participate in the very same welcome that probably got you here in the first place, and made you want to stay. “There’s so many ways to get involved here,” Joy Harvill said, as she expressed her thankfulness for the staff and volunteers who make southern hospitality a matter of personal pride. I suggested that she and the people there were something like the “concierge” of Edenton. “Yes, it’s exactly that.”
My wife Marsha was so taken with the warm graciousness of that 2016 conversation with Sally Kehayes and John Morehead in Edenton’s Living Room, that she’s signed on herself to the welcoming enterprise at Thomas and Penelope’s stately, genteel place. You can see her there, welcoming, of course.
“On New Year’s Eve, when we were closing up and Annette (Wright) was leaving,” Joy continued, “she called up the stairs ‘Happy New Year,’ and I answered back … Which made me think of how many times in that same hall the same thing has been said, all the ‘Happy New Years’ through the years.”
Indeed. If you listen closely, the halls of Edenton’s Living Room echoes with hundreds and thousands of such greetings that have been given now for well over 250 years.
The welcome goes on at the Barker House in fine form. The back door is open and the light is on: You are never a stranger — come back again and again.