Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Danville Daytrips -- Yanceyville

Danvillians often hurry south on Route 86 on their way to more-distant destinations – Burlington, Hillsborough, and beyond.  Yet as stop in our nearest neighbor of Yanceyville in Caswell County, North Carolina, makes an interesting daytrip for those with an eye for history, architecture, and art.

Caswell County was founded in 1777.  At that time, it included present-day Person County to the east with the county seat of that larger area at Leasburg.  With the division into two in 1792, both counties sought more central locations for their county seats.  Roxboro became the seat of Person County.  The remaining portion of Caswell County purchased land for a new county seat at its geographic center.  Originally named Caswell New Courthouse, then Caswell Courthouse, Yanceyville took its present name in 1833.  The source of that name remains in dispute.  Some say the town is named for James Yancey (1768-1829) while others claim it was named for his younger brother Bartlett Yancey, Jr. (1785-1828).

A daytrip to Yanceyville is best begun in mid to late morning on Wednesday, Thursday, or (depending upon your selected lunch location) Friday.  Two of the recommended locations are government offices and are available only on business days.  And the volunteer-staffed museum is only available Wednesday through Friday afternoons.

Park downtown in the Court Square where you will be immediately drawn to the star of the show – the courthouse itself.  Listed on the National Register of Historic places, this is actually Caswell’s fourth courthouse.  No longer in use for trials, it now houses county offices.  Completed in 1861 and fully restored in 1999, it is an over-the-top statement of Victorian, Romanesque, and classical design.

Until 2000, the clock in the tower had not operated for almost 30 years.  At that time, it was restored and converted back from electric to mechanical operation and now chimes again at every hour.  The National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors awarded this restoration first prize in its horological craft contest in 2008.

Venture inside to visit the second-floor courtroom that now hosts county commission meetings twice monthly.  The ceiling is tremendously elaborate.  The small dour behind the bench originally led to a small private staircase should the judge need to make a hasty exit.

In the center hall on the main floor, you should find a brochure title “Yanceyville Historic District Walking Tour.”  Or you can download a similar document in preparation for your trip.

To the rear of the courthouse are the Poteat Schoolhouse and the old Caswell County Jail.  The 1913 one-room school was moved here from its original rural location about six miles to the northeast.  The 1906 jail is a two-story Romanesque Revival building and one of the last to be built with an indoor hanging cell.  This building remained in use until 1975.

Further to the rear is the Caswell Community Arboretum.  This seems to be a fledgling effort with few species, none labeled.  Your legs are better saved for the Historic District Walking Tour.

To begin the Walking Tour, return to the front of the courthouse, turn to the west / left, pass the old theater and some offices, and arrive at the first of many historic homes on West Main Street.  Caswell County experienced a “boom era” from about 1830 to the time of the Civil War.  This resulted in Yanceyville’s many fine Greek Revival style homes.  Use the Walking Tour guide to learn more about many of these homes.   The total walking distance is about two thirds of a mile.  This entire district is listed on the National Register.

Returning eastward toward Court Square, you’ll pass an 1815 commercial building constructed by Azariah Graves.  This building is now home to Hushpuppies, one of two downtown lunch locations.  True to its name, this restaurant serves really good unusually shaped hushpuppies as a free appetizer.  This location is your downtown choice for a hot lunch, especially seafood.

Back on the square, “The Drug Store” has an old fashioned soda fountain with a nice sandwich menu (closed Friday).  It is also one of the few places anywhere around where you can get a made-to-order Ice Cream Soda, sometimes called a float.  A Philadelphia invention that’s a combination of soda water, syrup (three flavors here), and ice cream, it’s best ordered with or ahead of your meal to allow some time for the ice cream to partially melt into the soda while you eat.  This took me back to the 1950s.

Other choices for lunch include sandwiches at Yoder’s Country Market deli and the locally-popular Venice Italian Restaurant, both on or near Route 86.

With lunch completed, the Richmond-Miles History Museum, located across the square from the courthouse, opens at 1:00.  Located in the 1822 Graves-Florance-Gatewood house, the museum is owned and operated by the Caswell County Historical Society.

Small town museums are always a joy.  A broad range of exhibits includes portraits of many of Yanceyville’s founders, several pieces of Thomas Day furniture, a large collection of antique clocks, numerous military uniforms, other bits of Caswell County history, and a genealogy research room.

In addition, this house was the birthplace of nationally-known Yanceyville artist Maud Florance Gatewood (1934-2004).  An exhibit of her art, including her final unfinished painting, can be found on the second floor.  Gatewood attended and then taught at the University of North Carolina for several years.  The Gatewood Studio Arts Building at UNC’s Greensboro campus is named in her honor.   However, most of her teaching career was at Danville’s own Averett College where she served as a Professor in the Art Department from 1975 to 1995.

Perhaps a hundred yards behind the history museum is the Yanceyville Museum of Art.  Located inside the municipal services building, this art gallery features a more-extensive collection of the Maud Gatewood’s works as well as pieces from her personal collection.  It may be best to retrieve your car from Court Square and drive to the municipal building whose address is 158 East Church Street.  Gatewood’s work is also in the collection of our own Danville Museum of Fine Arts and History, one of the stops on the Maud Gatewood Trail.

Beginning your return trip to Danville, Yoder’s Country Market (mentioned earlier as a possible lunch location) on County Home Road near the intersection with Route 86 makes an interesting stop.  In addition to Amish bulk foods, they offer naked goods, meats, and cheeses.  Recently, the have added numerous gluten free products for their patrons with gluten intolerance.

For your return drive to Danville, consider taking Old NC 86 (now numbered NC 1500) through the settlement of Purley and the village of Providence.  Follow Main Street to the north or turn right from Route 86 just north of town.  While there’s nothing to do along the way, the old road has many interesting twists and turns, making the trip between Danville and Yanceyville a bit more authentic.  The present straight-as-an-arrow Route 86 was constructed in 1956 or 1957.

Didn’t get enough?  More historic information about Yanceyville and Caswell County generally can be found on the excellent Caswell County Historical Association blog.