Public and private dwellings from the 18th century attract visitors to this North Carolina town.
By Al Stewart
Before Raleigh was designated as the state capital of North Carolina, and before Chapel Hill became home to the nation’s first public university, a little town not far from these two places was already thriving.
Today Hillsborough, North Carolina, is not as large as Raleigh or Chapel Hill, but it enjoys its own special distinction: it’s a museum without walls. The town’s historic district, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, boasts more than 100 homes, churches, and other structures built between the late 18th century and the early 19th century.
The town was platted in 1754 by surveyor William Churton on 400 acres where the Great Indian Trading Path crossed the Eno River. Many of its street names “” Tryon, Wake, Churton, King, and Queen “” recall this early history. By the 1760s Hillsborough was on its way to becoming the political, social, and economic center of the North Carolina backcountry.
When the colony began to organize for war against Britain in the 1770s, Hillsborough was the home of the Third Provincial Congress. After the American Revolution, the town continued to play a prominent role in the political life of the new state. Because of this, it was one of the first sites strongly considered as a permanent state capital.
Buildings in Hillsborough display Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Queen Anne architectural styles. With few exceptions, visitors are not expected to pay for viewing any historic site.
The relaxed atmosphere in Hillsborough’s lively downtown, together with its vibrant neighborhoods and affable residents, provide an ideal setting for several well-known Tar Heel authors who call the town their home. Also among Hillsborough’s 5,000 or so residents are professors who teach at nearby Duke University in Durham (10 miles to the east) or at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (10 miles to the south). Raleigh is a mere 40 miles east.
If you plan to stay overnight in town, the Southern Country Inn & Daniel Boone Campground, at 122 Daniel Boone St., offers a 65-site campground and is located near shops and restaurants; phone (919) 732-8101 for more information. Other campgrounds are located within a 30-minute drive from Hillsborough, so check your favorite campground directory or FMCA’s Business Directory for more listings.
One reason to overnight here, in addition to the historic homes, is that it is a popular antiques shopping district. “The Shops at Daniel Boone” has several antiques shops in addition to restaurants and antiques auction houses.
Begin your walking tour at the Alexander Dickson House (150 E. King St.), home to the Orange County Visitors Center. You can park your motorhome or towed car on the street near the house, then stop inside. A free map of historic sites is available, but it’s best to pay $3 for a booklet that provides a description of each of the 40 sites within walking distance of the center. The visitors center is open daily (except on major holidays), year-round.
Confederate Gen. Wade Hampton and his troops camped on the grounds of the Dickson House in the final days of the Civil War. Outside the home is a garden containing the types of herbs that were used for medical and practical purposes in the 18th and 19th centuries.
One block from the Dickson House stands the Old Orange County Courthouse, an example of the Greek Revival style, with Doric columns supporting a prostyle portico. The most distinguishing feature of this courthouse is a clock manufactured in Birmingham, England, in 1700 and given to the town by King George III circa 1769. This rare pagoda-style clock first hung in St. Matthew’s Church, then in the tower of the Hillsborough Market House. Since 1846 it has been in the cupola of the courthouse. Maintaining the clock in proper working order is the responsibility of six “Keepers of the Clock,” who take turns monitoring its condition weekly. The second-floor courtroom, with a seating capacity of 140, is still used today for Superior Court cases. The Old Courthouse is open year-round on weekdays.
Across the street from the Old Courthouse is another building with a courtroom “” the New Courthouse, first used in 1953. Since Hillsborough is the seat of Orange County, several county offices are located in this building.
A two-story private residence (closed to the public) sits on a low hill between the Dickson House and the Old Courthouse. Because of its exterior color, this structure is known as William Courtney’s Yellow House. Earliest records show it was possibly built prior to 1768 and was known in early deeds as the “Yellow House.” Its original owner is unknown, but William Courtney, a Quaker, acquired the house in 1772 and shortly thereafter opened a tavern there that offered food, drink, and shelter to travelers. In 1781 British Gen. Charles Cornwallis is thought to have stayed there.
For an overview of this area’s history, visit the Orange County Historical Museum, at 201 N. Churton St. This building was constructed in 1934 as the Confederate Memorial Building, a Works Progress Administration project. Museum exhibits on both floors illustrate the history of Hillsborough and Orange County from the days when the Occoneechee Indian tribe was the dominant political force to the early decades of the 20th century. Included among the exhibits are household goods; clothing; a pipe organ built in 1831; and a set of English-made brass and copper standard weights and measures from 1760 “”- the only complete set from Colonial times that still exists in the United States. The museum is open year-round, Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is free.
Around the corner from this museum is the Old Town Cemetery, where members of nine notable local families are interred in private plots. It also contains 184 original marked graves, including that of William Hooper, one of three North Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Next to the cemetery is the Hillsborough Presbyterian Church, built in 1816. It’s believed to be the oldest Presbyterian church in continuous use in the Tar Heel State, and is the first house of worship built in Hillsborough after the American Revolution.
The church is near the original site of St. Matthew’s Church of England, which was built around 1768 and served as the site of several Provincial Congresses held in Hillsborough. It was there that the state’s constitutional convention of 1788 took place and where North Carolina’s entry into the Union was delayed until a Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution. By 1791 St. Matthew’s was so dilapidated that it could no longer be used, and in 1793 it was destroyed by fire.
Farther down West Tryon Street is the Nash-Hooper House, the only remaining home of any North Carolina signer of the Declaration of Independence. The first owner and builder of this edifice was Gen. Francis Nash, who died in the Revolutionary War Battle of Germantown in 1777. Throughout the centuries this charming house has been owned and updated by a number of families, and is still in private hands.
At 153 W. King St. stands the old Colonial Inn, a two-story structure used as a tavern for many years. Tradition says the inn has been on its current site since 1759; however, local records show that Isaiah Spencer built the inn in 1838 and that it was known as Spencer’s Tavern. The building was a town gathering spot, with a hotel on the second floor and a family-style restaurant on the first floor, but for two years now it has been closed.
The Old Burwell School Historic Site, at 319 N. Churton St., preserves what was once a significant spot: Burwell’s Female School. From 1837 to 1857, young girls from several states attended this reputable academy. Remaining structures on the site include the boarding school; the home of the school’s co-operators, Presbyterian clergyman Robert Burwell and his wife, Margaret Anna, and their 12 children; and a small “necessary house.” The latter is a bit unusual in that it’s made of brick and is a “three-seater.” The garden contains fine specimen trees and a gazebo supporting the musk rose, a rare variety.
By this point, you may want to take a break and drive, for the next stop is approximately a mile from the center of town, and it’s something that should not be missed.
Ayr Mount was occupied from 1815 to 1971 by succeeding generations of a single family and is by far the most outstanding home in the area. The home was built by William Kirkland, a planter from Ayr, Scotland, and first occupied by William, his wife, and 14 children.
In 1985 Richard Jenrette purchased the three-story house. After restoring it to its original splendor, he donated the 265-acre property to Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. The house has been open to the public since 1994.
Its interior features valuable antiques such as furniture made by Duncan Phyfe; portraits by Ezra Ames and James Wollaston; a 1797 pianoforte; and Waterford crystal. An admission fee of $6 is charged for a one-hour guided tour of the house, which is open from March 21 to December 20.
After touring the house, many visitors take a leisurely stroll along Poet’s Walk, a one-mile nature trail that begins near the house. This beautiful path includes woods, meadows, and river views.
Across the Eno River from the Poet’s Walk is yet another piece of history: one of the first NASCAR tracks ever built. The Historic Occoneechee-Orange Speedway Trail one day will include a walk around the remaining outbuildings and the track. The last NASCAR race held there took place in 1968 and was won by a young Richard Petty.
From Ayr Mount, travel to the foot of South Cameron Street, the site of Occaneechi Indian Village. This reconstructed site depicts the village as it appeared in the late 17th century along a trading path. Today the village includes huts, a palisade, a cooking site, and a sweat lodge. This open-air exhibit is open daily from dawn to dusk.
This is only a look at some of Hillsborough’s major historical sites and homes. Visit soon and revel in the beauty of homes, objects, and views that were enjoyed by people long ago.
Historic Hillsborough is located off exit 164 from Interstate 85 and exit 261 off Interstate 40. Information, brochures, and more may be obtained from:
Alliance for Historic Hillsborough
150 E. King St.
Hillsborough, NC 27278