DATE: Sunday, June 1, 1997 TAG: 9705290187 SECTION: CAROLINA COAST PAGE: 36 EDITION: FINAL COLUMN: BEYOND THE BRIDGES SOURCE: BY ANNE SAITA, STAFF WRITER DATELINE: CRESWELL LENGTH: 110 lines
BEYOND THE barrier islands of the Outer Banks are tiny towns demarcated by waterways, forestland and produce fields.
Beyond these towns is Somerset Place.
The 19th-century Washington County plantation is far off the beaten path - about an hour's drive from Nags Head - and the perfect destination for a day trip from anywhere in the Albemarle.
It's an especially welcome respite for those who are beached-out or want to incorporate some real Southern culture into their vacation.
This is the South that most people are familiar with: White picket fences, a colony of cream-colored buildings, well-manicured gardens and brick walkways that, despite their crowning and drainage ditches, have trouble soaking up rainwater after a furious thunderstorm.
Gentle breezes blow off Lake Phelps, over grassy marshland and through a stand of ancient oaks. In the distance is the steady hum of a farm combine. Costumed women sit for a spell on a wooden bench, shooing away a flying bug or two.
And here's the best part: This attraction is free.
The State of North Carolina now owns the plantation, which officially is called Somerset Place State Historic Site. ``This is no longer a working plantation. It's just for looks,'' tour guide Joe Sliva said.
Years of work and research have gone into the authentic restoration of what once was one of the largest plantations in the state. During its heyday more than a century ago, Somerset encompassed more than 100,000 acres and included more than 400 people, most of them slaves. That made the private plantation bigger than many of the towns surrounding it.
``Most plantations were quite a bit smaller. This was a huge estate,'' Sliva told a group of Elizabeth City schoolchildren during a recent field trip.
Employees are especially busy during April and May, when public school children make a pilgrimage to the plantation as part of their North Carolina History studies.
``May - we're very busy every day. Hundreds of kids,'' said Sliva, who also conducts private tours in nearby Historic Edenton.
In fact, of the 30,000 people who visit Somerset Place annually, 4,000 of them come by school bus in the fall and spring. They participate in a hands-on tour, which includes making brooms, weaving baskets and sewing pin cushions from hand-ginned cotton.
School is almost out, though, and soon the place will be teeming with tourists taking a trip back in time.
They'll learn how Josiah Collins, an English merchant, created Somerset Place in 1785 to cultivate rice, and eventually corn and wheat, that was then shipped and sold from an Edenton port.
At least 80 slaves - whose numbers grew to 328 at the outbreak of the Civil War - were brought to Somerset from Africa to clear the land, build a canal for irrigation and transportation and plant and harvest crops.
Some also helped run the three-floor, 14-room main house that measures almost 7,000 square feet and includes unusual features such as trick doors to make rooms architecturally balanced.
Furnishings in each room include both originals and reproductions. Framed portraits of Collins and his descendants also are on display.
Auxiliary buildings include a dairy house, smokehouse, salting house and kitchen. There also are two small restroom buildings and a visitor's center/gift shop for modern public convenience.
Most of the Somerset Place slaves were skilled laborers who also served as blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers and cobblers. These men, women and children built their own village, comprised of 26 homes stretched along the lake, a two-story hospital and a 200-member church that at one time had the largest Episcopalian congregation in the state.
Dorothy Redford, a former Portsmouth resident who brought Somerset to the nation's attention 11 years ago, said plans are underway to reconstruct the slave village.
The first building, a cabin occupied by a man and woman named Louis and Judy, is expected to be completed in November.
``My goal here is to reconstruct all of the buildings where people lived and worked, so that we're presenting a more holistic reconstruction of history,'' said Redford, now a Creswell resident.
In 1986, Redford, a descendent of Somerset slaves, organized a huge reunion that brought about 2,000 people, including celebrities like ``Roots'' author Alex Haley and the international media, to the plantation.
Three other, similar reunions have been held since then. A fourth is planned for the year 2000, she said.
The end of the Civil War, and slavery, also meant the end of the plantation system for Somerset. The Collins family turned over the grounds to the state about a century later, in 1969.
That ending, however, gave way to a new beginning for the Southern plantation, which appears to be enjoying its new life as an historic site. ILLUSTRATION: Staff photos by DREW C. WILSON
Restored 19-century Somerset Place in rural Washington County is
only about an hours drive from Nags Head. It's an especially welcome
respite for those who are beached-out or want to incorporate some
real Southern culture into their vacation.
Pines Elementary School student Veronica Norman, 9, of Roper,
center, and other students on a day trip make straw brooms at
HOW TO VISIT
What: Somerset Place State Historic Site
Where: 2572 Lake Shore Road, about six miles from the town of
Creswell, N.C. Signs are posted along U.S. 64 coming from Manteo,
Edenton and Plymouth. About an hour's drive from the Outer Banks.
Directions: Take U.S. 64 to Creswell and follow signs to the
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m.
Phone: (919) 797-4590.
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